1. Entrance From Republic Street
Visitors are admitted to the church and museum from this entrance via valletta’s principle thoroughfare, Republic Street. This is where the ticket office is located and staff are available to offer assistance.
2. The chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue
The chapel assigned to the Anglo-Bavarian Langue was originally the shrine where the Order’s holy relics were kept. At some stage the relics had been moved to the sacristy on account of the humidity within this chapel. In the late 17th century the altar dedicated to St Charles was brought to this site from the passage in front of the oratory. The altarpiece represents St Charles Borromeo Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, the renowned reformer of the Catholic faith, being presented to the Virgin Mary. The painting has recently been attributed to the French artist Claudio Francesco Beaumont.
It was only in 1782, after several years of suppression within the Order on account of the English Reformation, that Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc obtained a papal bull to revive the English langue which included the kingdom of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The decoration of the chapel commenced in the early years of the 17th century after Fra Raymundo de Vere, bailiff of Majorca left funds in his will of 1598. The frieze holds an inscription of his donation and his coat-of-arms was installed above the cornice. The bronze gate mounted on to the marble balustrade once belonged to the Chapel of Philermos where it served as an iconostasis. It was brought to this chapel when the silver gate was installed in its stead.
The reredos was designed to hold two important rare caskets containing saints’ relics. The altar was installed in 1739 and is typical of the high baroque style. The entire remains of St Clement, the gift of Fra Vincenzo Rospigliosi in 1669, were installed within the altar table. The altar also holds a bronze gilt crucifix which hails from the workshop of Alessandro Algardi, a renowned Roman sculptor.
The chapel contains only one tombstone belonging to Fra Francois Collongue de Foresta who died in 1687.
3. The Chapel of the Langue of Provence
The Chapel of the Langue of Provence is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel. The altar reredos belongs to the 1620s and is amongst the earliest installed in the church. The altar table in white marble was installed 1732. The altar painting representing the archangel St Michael follows the new iconography given to the Saint after the Catholic Reformation. The painting fitted in the lunette represents the ‘Apparition of St Michael on Mount Gargano.’
The funerary monuments within this chapel belong to Grand Master Antoine de Paule (1623-1636) and Grand Master Jean Lascaris Castellar (1636-1657. The centre of the dome of the chapel bears the coat-of-arms of Grand Master La Cassiere whilst the imperial crown is accompanied with fleurs-de-lys the symbol of the French knights of which the langue of Provence formed part.
4. The Chapel of the Langue of France
The chapel is dedicated to the conversion of the Great Apostle St Paul. In the assignment of the chapels to the langues it was given to the Langue of France which was third in order of seniority. This chapel first underwent decoration during the reign of the French Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1614 as the frieze under the cornice states. During 1663 and 1668 the carvings of the walls took place a new altar designed by the renowned Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Gafa was installed in 1666. The altar piece depicts ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ and was commissioned to Mattia Preti in 1668. The paintings fitted into the lunette depict ‘The Shipwreck of St Paul in Malta’ and ‘The Beheading of St Paul in Rome.’ The chapel was richly carved and gilded with sculptural motifs and fleur-de-lys to proclaim the supremacy of the French crown. The four spandrels beneath the dome carry the coat-of-arms of the four Grand Masters of the French Langue namely, L’Isle Adam, de Wignacourt, de Naillac and de la Sengle.
In 1838 the chapel was redecorated by the artist Giuseppe Hyzler who was a follower of the Nazarenes, a movement that aspired to reform Christian art. The carvings of the walls were simplified to incorporate a plain crowned cross of St John representing the Order and the fleur-de-lys of the Langue of France. The altar was replaced by a simple elegant version in white marble and the surrounding walls remodelled. The chapel holds four magnificent funerary monuments of Vicomte de Beaujolais, brother to King Louis Philippe of France as well as the monuments to Grand Master Adrien de Wignacourt, Grand Master Fra Emmanuel de Rohan and that of Marquis de Wignacourt.
5. The chapel of the Langue of Italy
The chapel of the Langue of Italy was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the Italian Knights. The chapel is true to the Baroque concept of one aesthetic expression where architecture, sculpture and painting are conceived as a whole. The decoration of the chapel was made at the personal expense of Fra Francesco Sylos who was ambassador to the Viceroy of Sicily and commander of Palermo and Agrigento. On a pale blue background the walls were decorated with a splendid arrangement in low relief with magisterial coronets and imperial crowns alternately placed with the eight-pointed cross of the Order, double-headed eagle as a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and the monogram RC. The pilasters were carved with exquisite acanthus leaves as a reference to the grandeur of classical antiquity and garlands of fruit as symbols of the munificence of the reign of Grand Master Raphael Cotoner. The moulding of the cornice was decorated with scallops and crosses, symbols from the coat-of-arms of Fra Francesco Sylos whilst the frieze running above bears the inscription stating the donation of this knight. The altar and reredos were constructed in 1733 and designed by Romano Carapecchia (1666-1738). The relics of St Euphemia of Calcedonia are kept in this altar. The statues of St Catherine and St Alexandria stand on large scrolled corbels to either side of the altar.
The altar painting depicts ‘The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’ and is the work of Mattia Preti executed in circa 1670. The paintings in the lunettes depict ‘St Catherine disputing with the Philosophers’ and ‘The Martyrdom of St Catherine.’ They are by an anonymous hand and belong to the 17th century. The paintings of The Penitent Magdalene, anonymous, and St Jerome by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, originally formed part of the collection of Fra Ippolito Malaspina, an important and powerful member of the Order, and were donated to St John’s after his death in 1624. The original painting of St Jerome is today kept in the oratory.
The Passage way takes visitors from the Republic Street entrance to the main nave.
7. The Chapel of the langue of Germany
The langue of Germany included the priories of Austria, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Alsace and the Netherlands. The decoration of this chapel commenced in 1664. The walls of the chapel were carved with intricate designs including the double-headed eagle which was adopted by the German Langue as its emblem and appears throughout the chapel.
The passageway leading to the Sacristy holds the coat-of-arms of Baron Fra Wolfgang Von Guttenberg, Bailiff of Brandenburg, a great benefactor if the Order, who died on the 4th December 1733. The other coat-of-arms marks the legacy of Christian Von Osterhausen who initiated the decoration of the chapel. Fra Francis de Sonnemberg, Prior of Hungary also contributed towards the funding of the decoration of the chapel in 1681 and an escutcheon on the cornice bears his legacy. The coat-of-arms of Perellos y Roccaful during whose reign the chapel was decorated is also displayed together with the coat-of-arms of Archbishop Prince of Salzburg John Ernest von Thun.
8. Passage to sacristy
This Passage leads to the sacristy from the main nave
9. The Sacristy
The main sacristy of St Johns was originally built in 1598 and subsequently added to; its coffered vault gives one an idea of the original appearance of the vault of St Johns itself before the Preti transformation in 1661.
The interior of the Sacristy was renovated in 1758 under Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773).
10. Main Nave
The nave is 53 metres in length and 15 metres wide with side chapels on either side. These chapels were assigned to the various langues according to seniority. The French, Italian and Aragonese langues being predominant were placed closest to the altar. The entire floor is covered with marble tombstones, beneath which, some of the most illustrious Knights of the Order are laid to rest.
The Grand Masters, who all took great pride in their conventual church, wanted it to be decorated according to the new artistic baroque style. During the 1650s and throughout the 1660s a vast programme of decoration was set into motion. Significant works of art were introduced, for which no expense was spared. Several coats of arms belonging to the aristocratic members of the Order of St John can be seen specifying their contributions.
After the vault decoration the most significant change that transformed the church into a symphony of Baroque splendour was the carving into the soft Maltese stone of the interior walls. On designs prepared by Preti the plain walls of the nave and chapels were decorated with elaborate motifs characteristic of baroque ornamentation, transforming the walls into a riot of richly gilded foliage, flowers, angels and triumphal symbols of all kinds. The pilasters supporting the central nave where clad with the finest green marble and at the top the coat of arms of Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner are displayed.
11. The sanctuary and High Altar
This area is a sacred place and is the focal point of the church as it holds the high altar. It has been enriched with several gifts from Grand Masters and knights alike. The Sanctuary has had a number of changes according to the Tridentine liturgical reforms, such as raising the high altar on a platform, but at times changes were made just to embellish it further. Originally there was only one altar placed directly in the apse with an altarpiece depicting the baptism of Christ. This painting now hangs in the museum. The apse now holds the impressive marble figures depicting the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. This is the work of Giuseppe Mazzuoli one of the leading sculptors of the 18th century. The elegant style and realistic rendering of the anatomy make this work a masterpiece in its own right.
The extravagant High Altar in the centre of the sanctuary is a masterpiece in rare marble and was the gift of Grand Master Carafa. The frieze running across the altar holds the symbols of the four Evangelists and the key attributes of St Peter and the codex and sword attributes of St Paul. The central motif is the Last Supper all made of gilt bronze and backed with lapis lazuli.
The solid silver Sanctuary lamp held by two angels is a reflection of the extravagant baroque style and the grandeur of the Order during the seventeenth century. This rare treasure was the gift of Bali Fra Vincenzo Rospigliosi in 1669.
12. The Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos
The first chapel on the south side of the Co-Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was the first one to be given a particular devotion. The chapel housed one of the icons of the Virgin of Philermos that the knights had brought with them from Rhodes. The icon was believed to be miraculous and drew great devotion especially before battle when the knights would congregate and ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary. When they returned victorious they would again congregate in the chapel in order to give thanks and present the keys of the conquered fortresses to the Virgin. The keys to the fortresses of Lepanto, Passava, Hammet and Patras are still present within the chapel.
When Napoleon expelled the Order from Malta in 1798, Grand Master Ferdinand Von Hompesch took it with him. The icon was taken to St Petersburg however its whereabouts remained unknown for several decades until it was rediscovered in Montenegro and is now exhibited in the Fine Arts Museum. The icon currently in the chapel depicts the Virgin of Lanciano known as the Virgin of Carafa. The Virgin of Carafa icon is housed in a reredos of precious marbles fitted during the reign of Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar whose coat-of-arms is included in the altar. The inner sanctuary is enclosed by a silver gate installed in 1752. The walls were sculpted in 1659 with motifs of rich symbolic meaning, several of which were attributes of the Immaculate Conception and other titles of the Virgin Mary.
13. The chapel of the Langue of Auvergne
The chapel of the Langue of Auvergne is dedicated to St Sebastian. The altar painting follows this dedication and has been attributed to Lucas Garnier, a 17th century artist whose style forms a blend between the fading mannerist tradition and the Caravaggist chiaroscuro. The lunette paintings on either side of the Chapel are probably also works by Lucas Garnier and show scenes from the life of St Sebastian. The reredos with its spiral columns is probably one of the earliest installed in the church in the late 16th century.
The walls of the chapel are carved with garlands of flowers symbolising the prosperity enjoyed by the Order. They are also dominated by a crowned dolphin which is the symbol of the langue of Auvergne. The magnificence of these walls owes much to the devotion of the main benefactor Fra Jean de la Baume de Foursat. The inscription on the frieze dated 1667 tells of his dedication to this chapel.
The only Grand Master buried in this chapel is Fra Annet de Clermont de Chattes Gessan who is remembered for his military virtues during several encounters with the Turks.
14. The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon
The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon, including the priories of Catalunia and Navarre, is dedicated to St George. It is one of the most richly embellished chapels in the church. The altar painting within this chapel represents St George on Horseback and was executed by Mattia Preti as one of his first works for the church which was commissioned by Grand Master Martin de Redin in 1659. Also executed by Preti within this chapel are the lateral paintings representing St Francis Xavier and St Firminius and the paintings within the lunettes depicting St Lawrence meeting Pope Sixtus II on his way to Martyrdom and The Martyrdom of St Lawrence. The altar and its surrounds were redesigned in the 18th century during the reign of Grand Master Ramon Despuig. His effigy is displayed at the base of the marble columns.
There are four Grand Masters buried in this chapel. The funerary monuments close to the altar are of Grand Master de Redin who reigned from 1657 to 1660 and of Grand Master Raphael Cotoner who reigned from 1660 to 1663. Grand Master Raphael was superseded by his brother Nicholas whose monument is also present within the chapel. The other monument is that of Grand Master Perellos Y Roccaful who reigned from 1697-1720.
The chapel was bestowed with several important relics brought to Malta by the knights. Amongst them are the arm of St George, the arm of St Vincent Ferreri, a relic of the true cross and the entire body of St Fidele, martyr, which is kept in the altar of the Chapel.
15. Passage to BookShop
More marble tombstones are found in the passage to the bookshop. Amongst the various personalities commemorated in this area you will find the oldest marble tombstone in St John’s; that of Fra Jacques de Virieu Puppettieres who died in 1608.
16. The Chapel of the Langue of Castile, Leon and Portugal
The Chapel of the Langue of Castile, Leon and Portugal is dedicated to the patron saint of Spain, St James. The main altar painting is the work of Mattia Preti and depicts the ‘Apostle St James’. The restricted palette consisting mainly of earth colours and the exquisite draughtsmanship make it a masterpiece of baroque art. The lunette-paintings depict ‘St James banishing the Moors from Spain’ and the Saint as he kneels at the feet of Our Lady of Pillar, both are works by Mattia Preti. The wall carvings and gilding were commissioned in 1661.
There are two Grand Masters buried in this chapel. Close to the altar is the funerary monument of the Portuguese Grand Master Anton Manoel de Vilhena who reigned from 1722 to 1736. It is the work of the well-known Florentine sculptor Massimiliano Soldani Benzi. The other monument commemorates Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca who reigned from 1742-1773.
17. Passage to Oratory
This passage leads from the main nave to the oratory.
The Oratory was built between 1602 and 1605 as a place of devotion for the young novices. The reigning Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt was looking for an artist to embellish the conventual church and to produce a painting for the young novices to meditate on. This is how the Oratory became the home of one of the greatest paintings by the renowned artist Caravaggio The Beheading of St John the Baptist who was the patron saint of the Order. Another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces ‘St Jerome Writing’ is also exhibited in the Oratory. At first the Oratory was a plain rectangular construction but this was transformed by Mattia Preti in the 1680s when he was commissioned its redecoration which included the installation of the beautiful altar contributed by Grand Master Carafa. The redecoration of the Oratory included the heavily gilt carvings of the vault and arch in the apse as well as the wooden Venetian-style gilt soffit in which three painted scenes from Christ’s Passion were inserted. The lower panels in the vault area depict two of the founders of the Order while paintings of eight other saints can be seen along the laterals of the Oratory. Other notable works of art in the Oratory are the fine bronze tondo by Ciro Ferri affixed to the front of the altar, the marble head of St John the Baptist presented on an elaborate gilt scallop shell on the epistle side of the altar and a rare 16th century organ which has recently been restored by the 5th Italian Financial Protocol.
The well stocked book shop’s opening hours are the same as the Co-Cathedral’s visitor opening times mentioned above. It stocks a wide variety of books related to St John’s Co-Cathedral, the history of Malta, the Knights of Malta and art as well as tourist guide books for St John’s and the Maltese islands in general. The shop also sells tourist related DVDs, postcards, souvenirs, posters, CDs of sacred music and maps.