Art, religion, and death go hand in hand in world culture. Some of the most beautiful art expresses some of the more gruesome aspects of human life. One such place that seamlessly combines art, religion, and death is St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta to create some of the most beautiful and macabre funerary art.
Malta is a tiny gem in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily and east of Africa’s Tunisia. An archipelago steeped in ancient and religious history, Malta was the biblical island where St. Paul was shipwrecked on and one of the homes for the crusading Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, known as the Knights Hospitaller.
The Knights Hospitaller, a Christian militaristic order prominent in the middle ages and the Crusades, was an organization rich in art and history. Their legacy can be seen in many great buildings across the Mediterranean. One of the most beautiful ports in the Mediterranean, the Maltese capital of Valletta boasts such a jewel of Hospitaller art: St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
Commissioned in 1572 and under construction until 1578, the Cathedral exterior is rather bland and looks more like a stout fortress than its contemporary cathedrals. Once inside, a completely different face is presented.
The cathedral has eight chapels, each dedicated to the eight patron saints of the eight langues (sections) of the Knights. These chapels house religious masterpiece paintings and the grandiose marble tombs of knights passed. The main sanctuary has an ornate and gilded half barrel ceiling depicting the life and final execution of John the Baptist above and the floor is paved with the tombs of knights below. This was a very common practice in the middle ages, but not all cathedrals execute it so grandly. It is these tombs that are the really intriguing bit.
The marble monuments venerate the deaths of these religious warriors with macabre imagery of skeletons, skull and crossbones, and even death himself. With over 400 tombs, each marker is unique and crafted with great care of multicolored marble. Covering every space of the floor each tomb tells the story of the knights beneath: great conquests, coats of arms, and finally death. These tombs exemplify the power, wealth, and sense of pageantry of an organization that boasted world influence and power. In my time at the cathedral with all the grandeur overhead, I spent most of my time perusing the floor.
I highly recommend the St. John’s Co-Cathedral web site where there is an interactive map of each tomb with the ability to look at them closer.