A whirlwind tour of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, formerly the Conventual Church of the order that ruled Malta until 1798.
It was in 1573, when the Order of Jerusalem has existed in Malta for 43 years that the Grand Master Levesque de la Cassiere (1572-1581) commenced, at his own expense the building of the celebrated Conventual Church of Saint John the Baptist in the newly founded city of Valletta.
The Church may be considered as one of the most remarkable in Europe, on account of the very rich artistic monuments which it contains and also because it bears testament to the seven langues which had an enduring influence on Malta during the Order’s domination.
Architecturally, it is of the Doric Order. The construction was made under the direction of the distinguished architect and engineer Girolamo Cassar, a Maltese. This man was highly regarded and to form an idea of his merits we have only to read the following extract from the Original Registers of the Council of the Order for the years 1579-81. (Fol. 270).
" The Grand Master Giovanni Levesque de la Cassiere certifies that Girolamo Cassar of the Maltese nation, architect in ordinary and engineer of the Order has, for many years, given his services in the above mentioned capacity viz : from the year 1565 until the year 1581, during which period the Island of Malta having been besieged by the Turks, the said Cassar was not sparing of labour on behalf of the Order, and courageously faced every danger in order to repair the havoc caused by the enemy, and to enable the troops to defend themselves against continuous assaults.
Further, the said Grand Master certifies that the said Cassar was one of the Engineers under whose direction the City of Valletta has been built, and rendered an invincible fortress. The plans for the 7 Auberges of the 7 Languages are the work of the before mentioned Cassar, as is also the Magisterial Palace, and, what is more remarkable, the Conventual Church of St. John the Baptist.
The plans for the Parish Church of S. Paolo, of Santa Maria di Porto Salvo, del Carmine, S. Agostino, and of Santa Maria di Gesu are by him.
He has in like manner designed not only all the buildings of the Bakery and Mills but also other houses belonging to the Order of Jerusalem, and to private persons.
The said Grand Master concludes by declaring that Cassar is much beloved by himself and by the whole Convent ; and that he is acceptable to the whole Maltese population, and in order that his praise worthy merits might be known to all men in every future age, the said Grand Master made this attestation on his behalf on the 18th day of May 1581."
The Church was consecrated in 1578 during the rule of the same Grand Master that commenced it by Don Lodovico de Torres, Archbishop of Monreale. The coats of arms of the Grand Master De La Cassiere and of Archbishop de Torres, together with two latin inscriptions over the entrance record the erection and consecration.
The facade is built in the semblance of both church and fortress, as belonging to an Order at once military and religious, has nothing striking in its appearance. It is surmounted by a Maltese cross, beneath which is a figure of Our Saviour, the work of Algardi of Bologna, which was brought from a church, since demolished, on the Marina.
The clock, constructed by a Maltese named Clerici, has three faces, which work respectively, the hour, the day of the week and that of the month.
The two flanking bell-towers contain ten bells, seven of which gave warning of the services of the church whilst the other three were connected to the clock. Two of the largest were given by the Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773), and were consecrated by Bishop Alferan de Bussan.
As we enter we notice two marble fonts which were presented in 1641, and another of plain marble which was brought in 1643 from the Church of San Lorenzo (Birgu).
The major changes to the original plan consisted of the choir (1598) by Grand Master Martin Garzes (1595-1601), the Oratory (1603) erected by the Grand Master Alfio Wignacourt (1601-1622) for the instruction of novices and other pious purposes, and the division of the aisles into chapels.
After a decision of the first General Chapter held in Malta in 1604 the two aisles were divided into chapels one for each of the seven remaining Languages of the Order. Successive Grand Masters and Grand Priors vied with one another in adding to the treasures of the Church of St. John whilst individual knights were bound to give a "gioia" or present to the church upon promotion.
Most of the frescoes are by Mattia Preti "the Calabrese". He came to Malta in 1661 at the invitation of the Grand Master de Redin (1657-1660), and resided here until his death in 1699. Preti’s mentor was the Maltese Lanfranco, and it was in his school that he acquired a taste for large canvasses. Lanfranco died in 1649, and was buried in the same grave which contains the ashes of the Grand Prior Viani. He trained numerous pupils, of whom Dedominicis and Paolo Cianfarli were the most celebrated. Preti is largely unknown outside Malta and his portrait and a brief biography are to be seen in the sacristy. The pavement was partially restored under the administration of Sir H. H. Bouverie, and the paintings on the roof during that of Sir Charles Straubenzee by Sig. Cortis between December 21st 1867, and the year 1874.
The chapel of St. James is closest to the Oratory. This chapel was formerly assigned to the knights of Castile and Portugal. The altar piece represents St. James. The other two, which are semicircular in form, represent the Madonna del Pilar appearing to St. James, and the other the battle with the Moors during which the apparition of St. Catherine gave complete victory to the Spaniards. The bronze monument of the Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) dominated this chapel, only to be later upstaged by the tomb of Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773).
The next chapel is dedicated to St. George. It was assigned to the language of Aragon. The altar piece represents St. George on horse-back giving battle to the Dragon. The other two pictures are semicircular in form and represent the meeting of S. Lorenzo with Pope Sixtus III, and the Martyrdom of the Saint. The two small pictures above the entrances represent the Bishop San Ferminio, and S. Francis Xavier the Apostle of India, both alike in an ecstasy. The altar itself was donated by Grand Master Despuig (1736-1741) whose bust and arms are also displayed. In this chapel are buried the Grand Masters de Redin (1657-1660), the two Cotoners (Raphael 1660-1663, Nicholas 1663-1680), and Perellos (1697-1720).
The next chapel is dedicated to St. Sebastian. It was assigned to the Language of Auvergne. The pictures represent the Martyrdom of S. Sebastian, together with episodes in the life of the Saint. The chapel hosts the remains of Grand Master Annet de Clermont de Chattes-Gessan who died shortly after his election in 1660.
The little chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (or of our Lady of Philermos) formerly contained an image of the B. V. Mary, of which many miracles are recorded, and which was carried to St. Petersburg by the last Grand Master Fra Ferdinand von Hompesch 1797-1798 (surrendered)). Monsignor Alpheran, formerly Bishop of Malta, was the donor of the silver tabernacle, and the silver rails valued at £800 were given in 1752 by the Bailiff Guerani, and a knight named De La Salle, as a votive offering of one-fifth of their personal property.
It is said that these costly rails escaped being plundered thanks to a coat of paint. The admirable altar piece, representing the B. V. Mary and the Holy Child is the work of the Cav. Pietro Gagliardi and was presented to the Church by the Rev. Canon Pullicino. The altar itself was the gift of Fra Flaminio Balbiani the Prior of Messina to whom Malta also owes the Upper Barracca of Valletta.
The Church never had a chapel for the Language of England. This is because of the rise of Protestantism in that country. As seen in the above attestation, even Cassiere had long given up on England.
However late in the 18th century a new language called the Anglo-Bavarian Language was constituted. To this new langue was assigned in 1784, the chapel once known as the Shrine of the Holy Relics which is found on the opposite side to that of the Blessed Sacrament.
Most of the first Grand Masters who reigned in Malta are buried beneath the sanctuary. These are Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (in Malta 1530-1534), Piero del Ponte (1534-1535), Juan de Homedes y Coscon (1536-1553), Claude de la Sengle (1553-1557), Jean Parisot de la Valette (1557-1568), Pierre del Monte (1568-1572), Jean de la Cassiere (1572-1581), Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle (1581-1595), Martin Garzes (1595-1601), Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622) and Luís Mendes de Vasconcellos (1622-1623).
The tomb of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere (1572-1581) is beneath the high altar as befits recognition of his patronage.
Looking at the former Shrine of the Holy Relics, one can admire the altar piece which represents the B. V. M. with the Holy Child and St. Carlo Borromeo. A picture above the altar on the right depicts Michael the Archangel, the protector of the Celestial See.
The next chapel is that of St. Michael. It was assigned to the language of Provence. The painting above the entrance represents the Apparition of St. Michael upon Monte Gargano. This chapel contains the tombs of the Grand Master Antonio de Paula (1623-1636), and John de Lascaris (1636-1657).
Next, one finds the chapel dedicated to St. Paul. It was assigned to language of France. Its altar piece represents the Conversion of St. Paul. The two lunettes in the same chapel represent scenes in the life of this saint The two other small pictures portray the Holy Family and the preaching of St. John in the Wilderness. This chapel contains the monuments of the Grand Master Aloffio Wignacourt (1690-1697) and his brother John and of Grand Master Emanuel De Rohan (1775-1796), at whose feet his niece was permitted by Sir Thomas Maitland to find a resting place. There is also a fine monument of the Count de Beaujolais, brother to Louis Philippe who defrayed the cost.
The Order left Malta in 1798. It remains a moot academic point whether the Count de Beaujolais and Rohan’s niece would have been allowed to have been buried in this Church, had the Order still been in power.
The next chapel is that of St. Catherine. This was assigned to the Language of Italy. The altar-piece represents the mystical Marriage of Sta. Caterina. Two lunettes show a penitent S. Gerolamo and the Magdalen at the Sepulchre. This chapel holds the tomb of the Grand Master Caraffa (1680-1690).
The next chapel is that of the Epiphany or the visit of the Three Kings which belonged to the Language of Germany. The principal picture shows the Adoration of the Magi. The two lunettes represent the Murder of the Innocents, and the other shows the Nativity.
Walking back into the Church proper, we see what is referred to as the “Campo”: Very few Maltese are buried here. The reason stated by old publications is that the native Maltese were generally regarded by the Order as being of Jewish or Arab blood, a reason which apparently was never confuted by the reception into the same order, of some distinguished but very Moorish-sounding Iberian and Italian families.
A great number or memorial slabs commemorating various knights of the Order as well as certain personages are buried in the “Campo” not because of their membership but because of their merited contribution. Of the first group we find the Maltese Knight Gian Francesco Abela who reached the rank of Vice Chancellor. He is regarded as the first Maltese historiographer. He published the “Descrizione di Malta”. The marble memorial was placed by his nephew Jacobus Testaferrata de Robertis. Of the second group we find amongst others the very learned Baldassar D’Amico who was a chaplain within the German langue. His memorial was placed by his great-nephew Claudio Baldassar D’Amico Inguanez. We can also identify the brothers Emanuel and Joseph Borg, Faetano Bruno, Salvatore Imbroll, Joachim Navarro, who had exceptional merits as well as Joseph Nicholas Zammit a knight of the Order of St. Michael and St. George which was a new order established by the British originally for Maltese and Cypriots. The first Grand Master of that order was Thomas Maitland and the throne room was found in the palace of the Grand Masters (today the Presidential Palace). Zammit’s memorial was laid by his relation Calcedonio Azopardi Zammit. The Grand Master Marc' Antonio Zondadari (1720-1722) is also buried in the “Campo”.
During the 19th century, the chronology of Maltese recorded history suffered much distortion under the British. We can look by example at the tombstone of Massimiliano Balzan (Balsano). He was Uditore of the Order, an office regarded as one of the two foremost ministers in all matters pertaining to the administration of Justice in the Maltese Islands. In 1698 he was granted a title of nobility by the Holy Roman Empire as attested by the memorial seen over here. However, the British Colonial Administration ruled that there was no evidence that the government of the Order of the Maltese islands ever recognized this title. Similar distortions of history affected other members of the local nobility.
Looking above at the ceiling, this is divided into seven zones, one of which at the west end above the gallery is narrow, and the other six separated by projecting bands of stone, sculptured with numerous gilded palm branches.
Above the gallery is "The Religion" holding in one hand the standard of the Order; and in the other a drawn sword. On either side are the figures of the brothers Grand Masters Raphael and Nicholas Cotoner (Raphael 1660-1663, Nicholas 1663-1680) commemorating their decision to have the Church redecorated.
The small arch has on the left the figures of St. Elizabeth, mother of the Baptist, and of Raymond du Puy, the second Grand Master, whilst on the right are Zacharias and S. Geraldo the founder of the Order.
In the first large zone we see Zacharias ministering in the temple, and on the right the naming of St. John Baptist. Above is depicted the meeting of the B. V. Mary and St. Elizabeth.
In the second zone the Baptist is pointing his disciples to Christ as “the Lamb of God” whilst on the right we see the multitudes coming to his baptism. On the roof is depicted an angel presenting the infant saint to the Heavenly Father.
The third zone portrays "The Baptism of Christ" and "St. John preaching in the Wilderness." Above are the Heavenly Father angels and a scroll.
The fourth zone represents the arrest of St. John by Herod. On the right the Baptist makes reply to the messengers from Jerusalem, and in the centre he gives advice to the soldiers.
The fifth zone shows how Herod was reproved by St. John, on the right the Baptist's followers are being sent with a message to Our Lord, and in the centre is the severed head.
The sixth zone represents on the left the dance of Salome whilst evil spirits whisper to her mother and on the right the executioner does his work. Above is a chorus of angels.
In the apse St. John carrying the banner of the Order kneels before the “Holy and Blessed Trinity.”
At the corners of each of these arches are 24 figures of heroes and martyrs, famous in the annals of the Order.
Some people maintain that the Order ended in 1798. However, as is well known, there are two main schools of thought claiming succession of the rights of the Order that once ruled Malta, one being that which established itself in Rome in the 1830s, the other being that following the Russian Priory established immediately after the 1798 surrender. In 1802 Malta was going to be given back to the Order: However by 1801 the Great Powers were already arguing whether the then Grand Master was the Principe Ruspoli or Giovanni Battista Tommasi.
In 1815, Malta was confirmed as a British colony.
There are many other forms and traditions of the old order, some only recently revived, which bear the name of “St. John” or “Malta”, as well as other eponymous groups such as the British Venerable Order of St. John which was first created during Queen Victoria’s reign. Many of these maintain a presence in Malta but they have no rights to the island. By exception, after obtaining Independence in 1964, the Maltese State established full diplomatic relations with one of these orders, which also leases from the State, the old “Castello” at Birgu but by implication of these actions, that order has acknowledged that it has no claims over Malta.
All of these orders make their very valuable contributions to charity, humanitarian and other worthy causes, but none of them can lay claim to the Co-Cathedral which is today owned by the Maltese people.
Nowadays, the building doubles as a paying Museum and a place of worship. The Feast day of St. John is still commemorated during the month of June in this special co-Cathedral by a Pontifical Mass, celebrated by the Archbishop of Malta and the Metropolitan Cathedral Chapter.
External links: (official site) www.stjohnscocathedral.com