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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 3 of 24: Valletta - St John's Co-Cathedral

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High Altar

St John's Co-Cathedral is a major tourist attraction. There are long queues and the inside can be packed with people although fewer people visit the museum. The best time to visit is either when it opens, or towards the end of the afternoon when crowds are less. First impressions are jaw dropping with lavish decoration and lots of gold paint. The centre of the nave is roped off and most of the marble memorial stones on the floor are either hidden by chairs or covered by carpets. When we visited several of the side chapels were shut for restoration.

It was built by the Knights between 1573-8. The oratory and sacristy were added later. It was raised to a status equal to that of the original Cathedral of St Paul in Mdina, hence the term co-cathedral.

From the outside it is a huge building of plain sandstone slabs with no decoration and looks more like a fortress than a church. There are the usual two bell towers and red painted dome. The large wooden doors on Triq San Gwann (lots of eateries opposite) are kept locked. The tourist entrance is on Triq ir-Republika in a plain low building where you pick up an audio guide. It was so crowded when we arrived that we gave up on the audio guide and wandered round taking photographs. The crowds did begin to clear around lunchtime which gave us chance to walk round slowly with the audio guide.

Inside is a wide nave with barrel vault ceiling and two side aisles divided into side chapels, one for each Langue. Originally it was as plain inside as out. Now it is one of the world’s most opulent churches and a legacy of the Knights’ wealth, vanity and self aggrandizement. In the 17thC there was fierce competition between the Langues to create the most flamboyant decoration. The eight chapels are arranged along the side walls, each dedicated to the patron saint of the Langue. Pillars supporting round arches covered with gilt decorations, separate the chapels. Each is highly ornate with lots of gilt, an elaborate altar, paintings and many have memorial tombs to past Grand Masters.

The nave and chancel ceilings are covered with lavish paintings showing scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Trompe l’oeil figures at the base of the ceiling vaults look like sculptures.

The floor is made up of inlaid marble tombs of 400 knights, with the most important close to the altar. Each has their coat of arms.

The 17thC High Altar is made of gilded silver encrusted with precious stones with a gilded bronze of last supper. Behind is a massive gilt organ.

The sacristy is a large rectangular room off the nave with a large wooden cupboard on one side and a large table. The toilets are off this but are incapable of coping with the large number of visitors.

No photographs are allowed in the Oratory, a large rectangular building dominated by Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608), his largest and only signed painting, on the far wall. There is his smaller portrait of St Jerome at the opposite end. Other religious paintings hang on the side walls. There are trompe d’oeil effect windows at the top of the walls.

Stairs lead up to the museum. Fewer people get this far. The main attraction here is the room with 29 Flemish tapestries which used to be hung in the church on feast days. There is a room with displays of large, illuminated choral books used by the choir during choral services. Another room has a display of vestments worn by the Grand Masters and displays of religious art and silver communion plate.

We found the museum a bit uninspiring but the cathedral was well worth visiting, despite the crowds.

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