History of St John’s – a legacy of the Knights of Malta

Commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John and designed by the celebrated Maltese military architect Gerolamo Cassar, St John’s Co-Cathedral stands as a unique monument of international importance. The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order.

The Knights were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After defending the tiny island of Malta from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, they turned Malta into a fortress that befitted a military Order and built a new capital city worthy of noblemen. Pride of place in the centre of the new city ‘Valletta’ was reserved for their Church.

Building was completed on St John’s in 1577. The plain façade flanked by two large bell towers is austere and has the character of a fortress reflecting the sober mood of the Order after the Great Siege. 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 prominent, were placed closest to the altar.

As the dawn of the 17th century ushered in the new Baroque style, Grand Master Cotoner ordered the redecoration of the Church’s interior.

The Knights were eager to rival the great churches of Rome and the era’s flamboyant and demonstrative character provided ample material. They donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art by leading artists available to them. The Calabrian artist Mattia Preti, who was commissioned the work, transformed the interior into a celebration of Baroque art. It is the contrast between the simple and sober façade of the building with the festive mood of the interior that makes St John’s such a unique monument.

On the 12 July 1798, the Knights reluctantly ceded the Islands to General Napoleon Bonaparte and, in so doing, left their conventual church. It was at this time that the church was made into a Co-Cathedral. The French capitulated in 1800 and the British Governor soon took over the island. The same privileges enjoyed by the ruling Knights were reserved for the British Governor and, one of these privileges, was the church of St John’s.

In the 19th century, the chapel of the French Langue was the main target of Nazarener fanaticism, a movement that aspired to reform Christian art and wipe out the memory of the previous Baroque efflorescence. St John’s was entrusted to Giuseppe Hyzler (1787-1858), the local undisputed leader of the Nazarener movement. In his reforming zeal he immediately set upon the French Chapel by removing what may have very well been the most artistically interesting altar in St John’s. Under his direction, even the sepulchral monuments in the chapel were to be reformed and some damage had already been wreaked on the monument to Grand Master de Rohan when a strong protest in the summer of 1840 led the authorities to halt the attack.

In 1941, during the Second World War, St John’s Co-Cathedral suffered severe damage as a result of a bombing attack over Valletta. Part of the Loggia on Merchants Street suffered most as the church narrowly escaped total annihilation.

Fortunately, the contents had been transferred elsewhere in good time.

Since 1974, the Bishop’s throne has stood in place of that once intended for the Grand Masters and their successors – the British Governors – who had now also left Malta.

Today, St John’s is also a venue for cultural events and is one of the most popular cultural attractions visited by tourists in Malta. It is administered by the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation, which was set up in 2001 to ensure the church’s and museum’s conservation.