‘The Beheading of St. John’, Caravaggio’s greatest masterpiece is here in all its explicit gruesome detail.
The Co-Cathedral of St John standing in the centre of Valletta is nothing short of a gem and a must-see for any tourist. Described as the first complete example of high Baroque anywhere, it epitomises the spiritual and military role of its patrons, the Knights of Malta. I’m a regular visitor and still it never fails to astonish me. I suspect it has the same effect on thousands of other visitors, because it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Malta. Basically, it’s a sixteenth-century building with a seventeenth and eighteenth-century interior. A famous Italian artist, named Mattia Preti, dropped into Malta in 1661, and preferring it to home, stayed there. It was a stroke of luck for Malta, because his genius is etched all over Valletta, none more so than on the interior of this great cathedral.
Tourists from distant lands flock to see this ancient wonder, silence is strictly enforced, and you flash a camera at your peril. Visitors gaze in awe at the majestic high alter, and the splendour of Mr Preti’s work. The church floor is no less magnificent. Covered with 400 multicoloured marble tombstones, it is the last resting place of the famous Knights that conceived and created this great city and iconic cathedral. If I could read their language, I would know their names; engraved on each tombstone. Of course, like all great institutions, there was a hierarchy. The top Knights were called Grand Masters – they were the bosses – and throughout the cathedral they are commemorated in sculptors, paintings and monuments.
You wouldn’t want to be in a hurry when you visit St. John’s Cathedral. To linger and absorb the artistic beauty of the myriad of side alters alone would take hours, but for me, the ‘Wow’ sensation is in the Oratory.
Now, in the world of famous artists, the name ‘Caravaggio’ is legionary. He may have been a loveable rogue, shunting back and forth between Italy and Malta – depending on which police force was chasing him – but his works have for centuries been priceless treasures, revered the world over. The most famous of them all is ‘The Beheading of St. John’, the greatest masterpiece of its time, and here it is, in all its explicit gruesome detail, a rare privilege for all to see. Malta is famous for its churches and the Co-Cathedral of St John is the most famous of them all.
From ‘IN LOVE WITH MALTA’ (The Hidden Treasures)