We arrived at Valletta after some church holiday. No one could tell me exactly what was being celebrated, in Malta, there are similar holidays almost every day, but that’s what I understood only later.
In the morning, I woke up by the ringing of the bells interrupted by several shots (from a cannon?). Bells could be heard from all sides, there are 365 churches in Malta, but everyone says there are even more.
I went to town. It looked as if there was a gathering of all saints. The endless rows of their sculptures on the pedestals lined the street. Both holy men and women raised their godly eyes towards heaven, some of them spreading their arms wide, folding the hands in prayer or giving blessings to passers-by. They held a bishop’s stick, a sword, a book or palm leaves in their hands. I did a double-take when a whiff of sea breeze, passing a statue, turned a palm branch. It was made of plastic. But I didn’t pay more attention to it.
Huge bright red flags hovered across the street like a canopy above our heads. There were saints and angels on them too, they had crosses, chalices, lilies or scrolls in their hands, lilies, roses and other flowers twined around them. Some showed also a year of some significant event or a saint’s name, often names I have not ever heard in my life. And everything was framed with gold ornaments.
The flags seemed to be the wings of a giant red bird, the wind played with them turning them on the stakes to all sides so that sometimes, the figures disappeared and instead of them, we could see only the red backs.
But that’s not all. There were also yellow wreaths with stars and ribbons ready for some heavenly winners, long green garlands and strings of coloured lights.
On several houses of the side streets, laundry hanging on the small colourful balconies or between the windows was competing with the ceremonial flags.
Serious gentlemen in suits mixed with tourists in shorts and striped T-shirts, with caps or straw hats on their heads. It is not surprising that in this colourful spectacular show, among the many statues and flowing crowds of living people, I did not even see the entrance to the Valletta’s largest and most important church. Almost at the other end of the main street (Republic Street), I realized that I had missed it already. I turned back and indeed, the inconspicuous side entrance from the Great Siege Square (opposite of the Court of Justice) did not suggest at all that I was entering the most striking church I had ever visited.
The Order of Malta, originally the Order of Saint John or Knights Hospitaller (with the task of caring for sick pilgrims to the Holy Land) was founded in the 11th century in Jerusalem. After the conquest of the holy city by Sultan Saladin, they moved and settled down on the island of Rhodes but they had to leave again after a six-month-siege by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I. And thus, Emperor Charles V together with Pope Clement VII. donated the Malta archipelago to them in 1530 for a symbolic lease – one Maltese falcon a year.
The building of Saint John’s Co-Cathedral was ordered by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière, who commissioned the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar. This military engineer designed also other buildings in Valletta. The construction of the cathedral took only five years – from 1572 to 1577. The style was quite austere and simple. However, some years later, the interior did not seem to be able to compete with the churches in eternal Rome, so in the 17th century, Grand Master Raphael Cotoner summoned Mattia Preti, an artist from Calabria, to decorate the church in a spectacular Baroque style that completely contrasts with the cathedral’s exterior.
My first impression was that all was gold. Maltese limestone was used as a building material, it allowed to undertake almost all carvings in-place (in-situ). There were crowns, Maltese and Christians crosses, inscriptions, coats of arms and vases from which rich ornaments, flowers and leaves, grape bunches and apples were poured on the walls. But there were also lions and eagles, you could hardly find a piece of wall that was not decorated.
Some of the angels remained unpainted, the head of one of them looked like a sad doll – I just didn’t know if the angel was sad because he was being watched by sinful mortals with a smartphone in the hand or because he felt trapped in a golden cage.
Reflections of gold-rich decorations competed with beams of light passing through the windows. The cathedral has nine chapels dedicated to the languages of the Order (countries and regions where the knights came from).
The chapels are richly decorated as well. Also, the head needs to be tilted back so that you do not miss the ornate ceiling.
The walls served for the monuments of some Grand Masters. Angels play trumpets, whistles and other musical instruments. Since the members of the Order were not just monks but also knights and warriors, you can find cannons, swords, lances, halberds and other weapons on the walls as well. Conversly, there is a statue of a woman ready to offer her baby her breast which contrasts with the surrounding decoration not only with its peaceful motif but also with its pure white colour.
The floor of the cathedral consists of 369 marble slabs under which important knights dream their eternal dream. The tombstones are decorated with mosaics on which there are coats of arms, names, scenes and texts about generous deeds or significant battles. Numerous skulls remind of death. The access to the marble floor is restricted, it is not allowed to wear spike-heeled shoes.
One would need hours to study the details of the decoration of this church. They are so many that I was thinking about whether someone can fully submerge into prayer without his/her eyes (and thoughts) escaping to the secular beauties. After all, the main altar is also somehow lost and partly covered by seven big silver candlesticks and a large hanging lamp.
The altar sculpture group designed by the greatest Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Cafà was originally to be made of bronze. But Cafà died tragically in a foundry accident in Rome. Only about 30 years later, his only pupil Giuseppe Mazzuoli finished the work. The sculptures are made of marble and capture the baptism scene when John pours water from the Jordan River from a shell on Jesus’ head. By the way, in the past, the cathedral kept John’s right hand by which Jesus was baptized but later, the relic got to Montenegro through Russia.
Certainly, I recommend going up to the balcony which reveals the view of the cathedral vaults, their perfection and regularity. The frescoes will be come closer as well. Their author – Mattia Preti documented the life and work of John the Baptist on them.
However, the moment of the death of St John can be found elsewhere – in the Oratory of the cathedral – in the picture The Beheading of Saint John. Salome cannot be seen, but she must have finished her fateful dance. The executioner is about to make the last move with the knife in his right hand while his left hand is lifting John’s head. The maid is waiting with a bowl to take the head and bring it to the birthday party guests where also Herodias Antipas and his second wife Herodias are waiting. Two prisoners peek behind the grille, the man points his finger at the bowl. Only the older woman catches her head in horror at the fate of the innocent prophet.
The painting is a masterpiece of the famous Michelangelo da Caravaggio, as well as his largest painting – 360×520 cm and the only one where he left his signature (in the blood spouted from the wound). Grand Master Wignacourt, as a good Frenchman, loved luxury, was surrounded by pages from the high European aristocracy and leaded his court as a king. He was the one who called Caravaggio to Valletta. Caravaggio was preparing here for one year as a novice to enter the Order and just then, in 1607 he painted his famous work for this oratory.
There is also another painting of him which depicts St Jeremiah, an old man in scarlet robes in solitude in the middle of the wilderness as he translates Biblical texts into Latin.
In the cathedral shop, you can buy reproductions of these paintings or old maps but also candlesticks and other souvenirs from local limestone, of course mostly with the typical Maltese cross.
Visiting the cathedral:
Opening hours: from Mondays to Fridays between 9.30 and 16.30, on Saturdays between 9.30 and 12.30. It is closed on Sundays and public holidays. It is not permitted to enter with spike-heeled shoes or bare shoulders (scarves are available for covering). The entrance fee was 10 € at the time of my visit. There is no charge during mass but you must not walk around or take pictures. The fee includes the provision of audio guides in different languages. I do not like when in the galleries, visitors with audio guides stand directly in front of a picture and remain there until they hear the whole text. Visitors to the Valletta’s Cathedral don’t jam in front of a piece of art but rather look for a place where the air flows from the fans at least for a while. Although the churches in Valletta provide shade in summer, the air is as wet and hot as outside on the street.
I walked out of the cathedral and looked once more at its massive and simple facade and even more realized the contrast with the interior.
I was greeted by some other figures from the collection of all saints and the noise of crowded narrow streets.
As I mentioned earlier, you could pray in a different church in Malta every day. There are almost 30 churches in Valletta. At first, I didn’t know which one – except the cathedral – I should visit. The Anglican St Paul’s church from the time when Malta was still under the control of Great Britain? Or the impressive Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with the largest dome in the city? Well, it was closed, but a small oratory was open to believers. Small silver items in the shape of a heart, hand, foot or a baby show what people are praying for here.
Finally, it was the founder of the city – Grand Master Jean de Valette (1495-1568) who helped me in the large offer of the local churches. His statue stands against the oldest church in the city which was named after this great captain of the Order’s fleet who led the Order against the Ottomans during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
The Victory Church was actually the very first building built in Valletta. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Victory and located at the place where the foundation stone of the new city was laid on March 28, 1566. It has been rebuilt several times during its almost 500-year-history. A woman spread out her stall with earrings and some other souvenirs in the shadow of the church.
Bouquets of white flowers from a recent wedding were still attached to the benches and altar. There was no rush of tourists like in the cathedral…
The last church I decided to visit was the Church of Saint Paul Shipwrecked. According to St Luke, the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked at the shore of the island of Melita in 60 AD. The Maltese are convinced that this was Malta. Therefore, on February 10 (shipwreck day), the gilded statue of St Paul leaves this church and sets out on a procession through the city. In addition, there are also relics in the church – a part of St Paul’s hand and part of the pillar on which the father of Christianity was executed.
I was alone in the church, there was not as much gold in it and the frescoes on the ceiling depicting Paul’s movement on the island could not be recognized well in the dawn. Perhaps because of the loneliness and silence, this church was able to touch my soul much deeper than the golden sumptuous cathedral…
When I went out to the street the next day, there were no red flags anymore. Piles of the green garlands heaped up on the sidewalk. Some of them had already been pressed into bags.
Another surprise awaited me the next day. The collection of all saints had disappeared. There were only empty pedestals left. I came to one to see if it was also just a dummy. It was! The pillar was easy to lift. When all of them were loaded on a small van and driven away, only a common street was left.
However, as I walked through the city next days I began to discover some real stone sculptures on the corners of the houses. There were no crowds of people around them, only pigeons made them company. But these saints radiated peace and reconciliation.
I found some other symbols of faith on door knockers, above the windows or simply incorporated into the house wall.
After the strenuous tour through the churches of Valletta, I sat down in a famous coffee house and ordered a refreshing drink and cake. There were pictures of all cakes on the menu card. I chose a kwarezimal – a spicy cake with honey and almonds, sprinkled with hazelnut crumble – shaped like a brick.
When the waiter brought me the cake I looked disbelievingly at the plate and began to protest that this wasn’t what I ordered. The waiter just smiled and explained to me that they had just cut the square cake. Oh, I forgot I was in Malta. They had cut my cake in the shape of a Maltese cross! 🙂
A few days later, blue garlands appeared in the streets and new flags with quite different saints hung from the windows.
One holiday was over, a new one could start.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri