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. The relics had been moved to the sacristy because the humidity within this chapel. The altarpiece represents St Charles Borromeo Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, the renowned reformer of the Catholic faith being presented to the Virgin Mary.
The embellishment of the chapel commenced in the early years of the seventeenth century by Fra Raymundo de Vere, bailiff of Majorca who left funds for the chapel 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. It was brought to this chapel when the silver gate was installed in its stead.
The reredos was designed to hold two rare caskets containing saints’ relics. The altar was installed in 1739 and is typical of the late 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 stone altar reredos belongs to the 1640s and is amongst the early altars installed in the church. Its design is typical of early seventeenth-century Baroque. The gilded stone reredos consists of twin twisted columns placed on either side of the altar, similar to Bernini’s Solomonic columns designed for the baldachin at St Peter’s Basilica in the 1630s. The altar painting representing The Archangel St Michael showing 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 who reigned from 1623 to 1636 and Grand Master Jean Lascaris Castellar who reigned from 1636 to 1657. The coat-of-arms of Grand Master La Cassiere is displayed in the centre of the dome whilst an imperial crown accompanied with fleurs-de-lys serves as the symbol of the French knights of the langue of Provence.
4. The chapel of the Langue of France
The chapel is dedicated to St Paul the Apostle. This chapel first underwent embellishment 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 and a new altar installed. The altar piece is a painting by Mattia Preti that depicts The Conversion of St Paul, he was commissioned this work in 1668. The paintings fitted into the lunettes depict The Shipwreck of St Paul in Malta and The Beheading of St Paul in Rome by an anonymous artist. The chapel was richly carved and gilded with fleur-de-lys motifs, the symbol of the French crown.
In 1838 the chapel was redecorated during a movement that aspired to reform Christian art. The carvings of the walls were simplified to incorporate, amongst the fleur-de-lys, a plain crown and the eight-pointed cross. The altar was replaced by a simple elegant version in white marble. The chapel has four funerary monuments which hold the Viscount of Beaujolais, brother to King Louis Philippe of France, 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 St Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the Italian knights. The embellishment 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. The walls were decorated with magisterial coronets and imperial crowns alternately, the eight-pointed cross of the Order and the double-headed eagle as a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and the monogram RC as symbols of the munificence of the reign of Grand Master Raphael Cotoner. 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 are mid-seventeenth century works and depict St Catherine disputing with the Philosophers and The Martyrdom of St Catherine, by an anonymous artist. The lateral paintings that hang below the lunettes depict The Penitent Magdalene by an anonymous artist; St Jerome by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the other painting that originally hung opposite. Both these paintings were part of the collection owned by Fra Ippolito Malaspina, an important member of the Order, which he donated to St John’s church after his death in 1624. The original painting depicting St Jerome is preserved in the oratory.
The backdrop to the funerary monument of Grand Master Gregorio Carafa which is situated in the Chapel of Italy displays an impressive redition of the Battle of the Dardanelles that took place in 1656 between the Ottoman armada and a joint Venetian-Maltese fleet. The marble plaque is made of polychrome inlaid marble, in bas-relief. Within an archway, framing the bronze of the Grand Master, are two angels that hold a curtain open to reveal a scene that shows the battle taking place. It is a dynamic rendition of the Ottoman galleys and the galleys of the Order in battle. In this memorable sea battle where the Venetian-Maltese fleet was victorious, Carafa distinguished himself as he had commanded seven Maltese galleys. After the victorious battle Grand Master Carafa was welcomed in Malta as a hero. Malta received eleven captured Ottoman ships as a reward. This battle was the largest naval defeat for the Ottomans since the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
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 embellishment of this chapel commenced in 1664 with the intricate carvings of the walls with the double-headed eagle which was adopted by the German Langue.
The benefactors of this chapel include Fra Christian Von Osterhausen who initiated the decoration of the chapel, Baron Fra Wolfgang Von Guttenberg and Fra Francis de Sonnemberg, Prior of Hungary. The coats-of-arms of Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful and Archbishop Prince of Salzburg John Ernest von Thun are also carved into the walls.
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 whilst the interior of the Sacristy was renovated in 1758 as a gift from Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773).
10. Main Nave
The rather large rectangular nave is roofed by an imposing barrel vault buttressed with side chapels on either side. For several years, it was simply furnished matching the façade we see today. But in the wake of the Counter Reformation the interior was embellished with the prevailing baroque style of the seventeenth century. Its flamboyant and demonstrative character provided ample material. Major embellishment projects were carried out during the second half of the century during the reign of Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner who encouraged the church’s embellishment. The side chapels were assigned to the various langues according to seniority. The knights’ enthusiasm to embellish their chapels led to the transformation of the interior into a unique example of Baroque art.
The vast programme of embellishment set into motion saw a significant number of works of art brought to the church. The Grand Masters all took pride in their conventual church and bestowed gifts of great value to the church. 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 carvings of walls. The plain walls of the nave and chapels were carved 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 is displayed.
11. The sanctuary and High Altar
This 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 had undergone changes according to the Tridentine liturgical reforms, such as raising the high altar to be visible by all the congregation. In 1703 the apse was furnished with large marble figures depicting the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. This is the work of the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Mazzuoli. The high altar in the centre of the sanctuary is a masterpiece in rare marbles and was the gift of Grand Master Carafa in 1685. The frieze running across the altar consists of the symbols of the four Evangelists and the keys as attributes of St Peter and the codex and sword attributes of St Paul. The central motif shows the Last Supper all made of gilt bronze and backed with lapis lazuli.
The silver Sanctuary lamp is a rare piece, it was the gift of Fra Vincenzo Rospigliosi in 1669. The flamboyant design is an example of the baroque style and the wealth of the knights during the seventeenth century.
12. The chapel of Our Lady of Philermos
The first chapel on the south side of the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was the first one to be given a particular devotion. The chapel housed the icon 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 pray for the intercession of the Virgin Mary. When they returned victorious they would again congregate in the chapel and 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’s troops took possession of Malta in 1798, Grand Master Ferdinand Von Hompesch left the island and took the icon 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 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 seen above the altar. The inner sanctuary is enclosed by a silver gate installed in 1752. The walls were carved in phases between 1645 and 1660 with motifs of rich symbolic meaning, several of which are attributes of the Immaculate Conception and other titles of the Virgin Mary. Amongst the benefactors there are prominent knights including Fra Tommaso Hozzes and Fra Flaminio Balbiano.
13. The chapel of the Langue of Auvergne
The chapel of the langue of Auvergne was dedicated to St Sebastian and the altar painting follows this dedication. The artist is unknown, the painting showing an artist interested in a blend of mannerist tradition and Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. The lunette paintings show scenes from the life of St Sebastian. The reredos with its spiral columns forms part of the early installations in the church made in the first decades of the seventeenth century.
The walls of the chapel are carved with garlands of flower symbolising the prosperity enjoyed by the Order. The crowned dolphin is the symbol of the langue of Auvergne. The embellishment of the chapel was made by the 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 langue of Aragon, included the priories of Catalunia and Navarre and was 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. The lateral paintings representing St Francis Xavier and St Firmin and the paintings within the lunettes depicting St Lawrence meeting Pope Sixtus II on his way to Martyrdom and The Martyrdom of St Lawrence are also works by Preti. The marble altar and its surrounds were redesigned in the eighteenth 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 Martin de Redin who reigned from 1657 to 1660 and of Grand Master Raphael Cotoner who reigned from 1660 to 1663. Grand Master Raphael Cotoner was superseded by his brother Nicholas whose monument is also found within the chapel. The other monument belongs Grand Master Perellos Y Roccaful who reigned from 1697-1720.
The chapel received 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 preserved 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 wall carvings and gilding were commissioned in 1661. The main altar painting is the work of Mattia Preti and depicts St James Major. 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 defeats the Moors and St James and the Virgin of the Pillar and St James Major. They are also works by Mattia Preti.
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 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 consists of a large rectangular structure built between 1602 and 1605 during the reign of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. The chamber was dedicated to The Martyrdom of St John the Baptist and served as place of devotion for the novices. The oratory was also used by the Confraternity della Misericordia. In 1607 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was commissioned the painting of the altar piece depicting The Beheading of St John the Baptist. Another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces St Jerome Writing is also exhibited in the oratory. For many years, the configuration of the chamber remained simple and unadorned except for Caravaggio’s painting. The present adornment took place between 1679 and 1690 and consisted of the gilt carvings of the vault and arch in the apse, the wooden Venetian-style gilt soffit with three scenes from Christ’s Passion inserted in the frame work. The lower panels in the vault depict two of the founders of the Order while paintings of eight other saints adorn the side walls. The paintings are the work of Mattia Preti. During this period the altar contributed by Grand Master Carafa fitted with a gilt bronze tondo by Ciro Ferri depicting the beheading of St John was also installed. Other notable works of art in the oratory are the carved marble head of St John the Baptist attributed to the French sculptor Pierre Puget and a rare sixteenth century organ in the balcony. The intricately inlaid marble balustrade and cladding in marble of the interior occurred in the 1740s.