On our recent visit to Malta we were given special permission to examine the enormous painting by Caravaggio, ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist,’ that hangs in the massive co-cathedral (double cathedral) of Valletta, which is run by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta.
After the cathedral was closed to the public, the alarm system was turned off and we were given close access to the area behind the altar where the picture hangs. It was a sight to see my husband perched on a three-meters high ladder, held by one of the co-cathedal’s employees, watched closely by the cathedral’s officials as he took photographs (without flash, of course) of aspects of the painting (St. John being the patron saint of the Order). This was the reason for our visit and he is now in the process of analysing the painting on the basis of those photographs.
Our brief visit to Malta happened to coincide with a ceremony held in the cathedral to mark the completion of the restoration of one of the many paintings on its walls and ceiling, and we were presented with an ornate invitation to attend the event.
The Order of St. John was founded in the eleventh century to provide care and shelter for the crusaders in Jerusalem. But together with the other Christians, they were driven out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land by the Islamic armies in the thirteenth century and eventually settled in Malta. The order of St. John includes representative units, or ‘langues,’ of all the major European countries, and each one of these has its own ornate chapel in the cathedral.
The co-cathedral in Valletta was built by the knights of the Order in the 16th century, and from the exterior it is an imposing, albeit austere, building. In 1607 Caravaggio reached Malta, where he sought refuge from punishment for killing a man in a duel in Rome. While there he painted six pictures, two of which still remain there, but his fiery nature got him into trouble again, so that once more he was obliged to flee.
The interior of the massive cathedral was subsequently decorated with a large number of ornate paintings, frescoes, sculptures and other decorative elements. The colourful ceiling is itself a major feature of the artistic heritage of the building, containing a series of frescoes depicting the life of John the Baptist painted in the high baroque style by an Italian painter, Mattia Preti, a follower of Caravaggio. He executed the work between 1661 and 1666, and this year, 2013, marks the 400th anniversary of his birth.
Many of the paintings and frescoes in the cathedral were damaged with time, and in the last decade the Foundation of the Order has devoted considerable efforts and resources to restoring them. Thus, the ceremony to which we were invited marked the completion of the artistic restoration of a painting depicting ‘The Allegory of the Triumph of the Order of St. John,’ an undertaking which involved work by a group of expert restorers and took the best part of a year.
The invited guests who filled the cathedral listened attentively as the Curator of the Cathedral Foundation, Cynthia di Giorgio, gave a lecture in English, illustrated with slides, about the painting in question. It is an enormous lunette covering a semi-circular area above the main door, and Mattia Preti did not use the customary fresco technique but rather painted with oils directly onto the stone wall that had been treated with linseed oil. This presented him with a rough surface and various other technical limitations, making the beauty and complexity of the painting all the more remarkable.
Ms. di Giorgio’s lecture was followed by one given by the chief restorer, the Italian expert, Giuseppe Mantella, who spoke in Italian. His talk was also illustrated by slides depicting aspects of the work, so that it was possible to gain a general idea of what the work involved. The proceedings ended with a concert provided by a choir, a string quartet and the cathedral’s massive organ, followed by refreshments in the library lined with portraits of former Grand Masters.
It is no mean feat to depict an allegory, and the artist had evidently invested a great deal of thought and inventiveness in painting aspects of the work of the Order. The female figure of Victory stands astride the bodies of slain crusader knights and infidels, brandishing a sword in one hand and holding the standard of the Order in the other. Angels, putti, figures depicting former Grand Masters of the Order and an evocation of the once-besieged town of Valetta are also shown. It is an impressive achievement, and one which is best viewed in situ.
Altogether Malta, Valetta, and the co-cathedral in particular, are well worth a visit. And best of all, everyone there speaks English!
For a more detailed analysis, see: http://yshefer.wordpress.com for Dr. Yigal Shefer’s article, Conclusions Regarding the Painting by Caravaggio of ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’ in the Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta