After the great victory of 1565, the Order of St John proceeded with the building of the new city of Valletta. During their sojourn in Vittoriosa between 1530 and 1571, the Order had made use of that city’s parochial church of St Lawrence for their spiritual needs but this was only a temporary solution. As one might expect, the Knights included the erection of a conventual church in their building programme.
Grand Master Jean de Valette (1557-68) did not live to see the completion of the city that bears his name, and the transfer of the Order from Vittoriosa to Valletta was carried out during the magistracy to his successor, Pietro del Monte (1569-72), who decreed but did not build a conventual church. Its erection was left to his successor, Jean Levesque Jean de Cassière (1572-81), whose magistracy witnessed the building of most of the important public edifices of Valletta. The conventual church, naturally named after the Order’s patron saint, St John the Baptist, was solemnly consecrated on February 20, 1578.
When the Order was still residing at Vittoriosa, the Chapter-General of 1569 decreed in November the erection of the Knights’ conventual church in the new city, whose defences were still under construction. It was decided that the new church would also include an adjoining residence for the Grand Prior, who was the Order’s foremost chaplain, some rooms for the conventual chaplains (as the Order’s priests were known), and an enclosed space for a graveyard.
However, four years went by before the building actually started. It really began on the initiative of the French Grand Master de Cassière, of whom Bartholomeo dal Pozzo, a historian of the Order, wrote: “… in the midst of the din of Turkish weapons and of civil clashes within the Order, inflamed by his religious zeal and piety, he started its building in 1573”.
Indeed, de Cassière was a gallant warrior who had distinguished himself in the 1552 assault on Zouara in North Africa where he saved the colours of the Order from the enemy. He attained the rank of Marshal of the Order (reserved for the French Langue of Auvergne) and enjoyed a high reputation in Malta and abroad.
His later troubles with members of the Order were to lead to his deposition but he was eventually reinstated and vindicated by the Pope. Indeed, he was high-handed and autocratic in his methods but there is no question of his sincere motives and religious zeal, a primary example being the building of St John’s whose cost he bore personally. The first site earmarked for the conventual church was in the area known as Block number 27, near the site of the proposed Holy Infirmary (the hospital of the Order), which is now the Mediterranean Conference Centre. It was then realised that the bell-ringing would disturb the hospital patients and that the site was out of the way and not in a central position.
The next site chosen was in Block number 3, which was almost in the centre of the new city. Because of its elevation and central position, it was realised that this site was better situated for the most important church of the Order.
However, the site had already been allocated free of charge to the brothers Angelo and Manoli Metaxi (or Metaux), two priests from Rhodes of the Greek Eastern rite, who had already been working on the building of a Greek church for about two years.
Grand Master de Cassière insisted on the exchange of the two sites and a deed of transfer was drawn up and signed in front of Notary Placido Abela on June 23, 1572. The site had a length of 25 canes along Strada San Giacomo (now Merchants Street) by 17 canes along Strada del Monte (now St John’s Street).
According to an inscription on the main door of the church, the foundation stone was laid on November 1, 1573, but no description of this event has come to light, at least so far. Work seems to have proceeded at a rather brisk pace because the same inscription further states that the building was completed on June 22, 1577.
The church was constructed to the designs and under the direction of the well-known Maltese architect Gerolamo (or Geronimo) Cassar. A Spanish influence is apparent on the façade with its twin towers and mannerist details. Its rectangular interior resembles the Order’s conventual church in Rhodes, with a barrel vault spanning the nave which is flanked by side chapels whose walls serve as buttresses.
Its ornamentation, which had not yet been undertaken, belongs to a later age. St John’s, in fact, has been described as “one of the strangest and yet one of the most impressive churches in Christendom”. However, one must keep in mind that Cassar’s ‘clients’, the Knights of St John, had a military background which is reflected in the severity of a façade, which resembles a fortress.
On the other hand, the Order’s langues vied with each other to embellish their principal church, thus leading to its (later) extraordinary sumptuousness of carved stone and paintings. This mother church of the Order’s is credited with being Cassar’s most impressive building.
De Cassière foresaw that the Order might have to depart from the island as, indeed, they had in the past been forced to relinquish their positions in the Holy Land and Rhodes. Therefore, in the foundation deed of the conventual church, signed in front of Notary Matteo Briffa on November 23, 1577, the Grand Master laid down that should the Order relinquish the Maltese islands in the future, the church was to be officiated by the clergy of Malta. This deed has remained one of the cornerstones of the local Church’s arguments to prove the Maltese Curia’s ownership of St John’s.
But de Cassière went even further than just constructing the church. On December 20, 1578, he endowed it with his personal possessions so that it would always be properly officiated and served. This endowment consisted in lands he had bought from Giovanni Paolo Haius (the modern Agius), the spolium he had inherited from Don Luca Xara, dean of the Cathedral, and half the goods assigned to him by a papal brief from the possessions of Matteo Falzon, a condemned heretic.
But before this endowment could be carried out, the church was consecrated. Unfortunately, de Cassière did not entrust the consecration to the bishop-elect, the fiery Catalan Fra Tommaso Gargallo, who had not yet been consecrated bishop. This decision has, in fact, led to the acceptable assumption that the future troubles between the grand master and bishop originated from this event. Instead, on September 17, 1577, de Cassière obtained an apostolic brief by which the function of the consecration of St John’s was delegated to Mgr Ludovico de Torres, Archbishop of Monreale in Sicily.
At the beginning of February 1578, two galleys of the Order of St John were at Syracuse to ferry Mgr de Torres to Malta. The prelate arrived on the island on February 5, and, 15 days later – on February 20 – the new church was solemnly consecrated with the title of ‘The Major Conventual and Parochial Church of the Gerosolimitan Order, dedicated to St John the Baptist’. A marble table on the exterior of the main portal records the event. The new church was immediately subjected to the Holy See and enjoyed episcopal privileges.
Dr Joseph F. Grima is a former casual lecturer in History and Assistant Director of Education whose publications include Żmien il-Kavallieri f’Malta 1530-1798 and The Fleet of the Order of Malta – Its Organisation during the Eighteenth Century.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us