The Caravaggio Wing
A project part-financed by the European Regional and Development Fund
One of the oldest houses in Valletta was that of the Grand Prior of the Conventual church of St John, which was built together with the Oratory of the church, in 1605, where St John Street meets Merchants Street.
Its proximity to the holiest building of the religious and military Order of St John gave status to the most important Hospitaller after the Grand Master. In fact, it was more of a seat of authority than merely a grand residence, as the palazzo also included a library with liturgical books as well as an archive of parochial registers, and records of Masses said for different Foundations and charities, besides other documents.
Equally significant, but less well known, was that the Prior’s house had an inner doorway which led directly into the Oratory by a few steps. The Spaniard Pedro Camarasa was the first Grand Prior who could walk privately into the chapel to contemplate the striking altar-painting that has intrigued and marvelled viewers ever since 1608, when Caravaggio signed off his largest ever painting, The Beheading of the Baptist of St John.
The painting shows the gruesome loneliness of martyrdom, a destiny to which novices were prepared in their defence of the Faith on the battlefield and the high seas. The last Prior to enjoy the privilege of meditating silently at the altar beneath the painting was Fra Raimondo Albino Menville who lived through the departure of the Order from Malta in 1798 and the siege of Valletta during French rule. At his death in 1801, that door to the Oratory was shut for the last time and remained locked for the next two centuries.
The Prior’s house underwent several changes as it was adapted to many secular uses, including a St Joseph’s School for Girls on the piano nobile, the textile shop Camilleri Paris Mode on the Merchants Street side, and Bank of Valletta on the St John Street side. Its old spaces were lost as internal walls fell and its upper floor was bombed during WWII. Indeed, next to nothing is left by which to recognise its original purpose as a baroque residence.
The full turn of the circle came in the summer of 2019 when the historic doorway was re-opened, reuniting the former palazzo with the Oratory. The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation succeeded in acquiring the premises and converted it into a new extension to the Oratory of the Decollatio. Soon, over half-a-million visitors per year who flock to see Caravaggio’s Beheading will walk through that doorway to the newly-named Caravaggio Wing, which is being set up to showcase St Jerome Writing, by Caravaggio.
In the new Caravaggio Wing, the second painting by Caravaggio, St Jerome, will be given the greater space which it merits, allowing for appreciation and enjoyment on its own. Just as it once graced the walls of Fra Ippolito Malaspina’s palazzo, before he bequeathed it to the Chapel of Italy at his death in 1626, it will now be seen on the walls of the Caravaggio Wing. Further in, visitors can sit in an auditorium – named “Meet Caravaggio” – to see and listen to audio-visuals on the life of the artist in Malta between July 1607 and October 1608, first as a novice then as a knight of the Order and about his dramatic departure as he escaped from imprisonment in Fort St Angelo and sailed for Sicily.
FACE-TO-FACE WITH CARAVAGGIO
Visitors will then be able to step upstairs to the piano nobile which until recently housed the magnificent Gobelins tapestries and other treasures of the former conventual church. There, visitors will encounter Caravaggio’s paintings “face-to-face” via installations of state-of the-art projections. This will bring viewers up close to digitally enlarged details of the Beheading of the Baptist and St Jerome, showing the artist’s brushwork, his modelling of the human figure, as well as his use of highlights in creating the chiaroscuro effect.
The new Caravaggio Wing Project falls under Operational Programme I – European Structural and Investment Funds 2014-2020, ‘Fostering a competitive and sustainable economy to meet our challenges’. A Project part-financed by the European Regional and Development Fund with a Co-financing rate of 80% from the European Union and 20% from The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation.
Ever since it was established in 2001 following an agreement between the Government and the Catholic Church in Malta, the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation has been the guardian of unquestionably the greatest artistic treasures to be seen in the Maltese Islands. Its purpose is to ensure that this heritage is conserved to internationally accepted standards while being accessible to the thousands of visitors who daily walk through the doors of St John’s Co-Cathedral. Learn more about the Foundation.
Meanwhile, the Foundation is concurrently working on the new museum planned to house the recently conserved Gobelins Tapestries. Soon it will be opening its dorsto visitors, thus joining the Oratory and the new Caravaggio Wing. Learn More.