St. John’s Co-Cathedral: A Touch of Colonial Violence and Artistic Homicide

Valletta – St. John’s Co-Cathedral

When I got to the cathedral I thought it was closed. The rails used to coral hundreds of tourists at the gateway were empty, and there was no one at the front door. Checking my phone again, I very purposely looked up the hours and days repeatedly before heading out, I see an older couple walk out of the front doors. “Yes!” I whisper shout, and the clerk that was hiding in the cool dark of the front hallway comes out to look at me a bit strangely. “You’re open right?’ I ask the obvious, inwardly rolling my eyes at myself. “Yes, come on in, the mass is free in the morning, but if you want to visit now, you have to pay,” he smiles at me, while I put my mask on. “Ok, I’ll pay” my voice is muffled and I try not to literally roll my eyes at myself. Of course you’ll pay Carla, sweet Christ!

Entering the cathedral I’m left speechless. You can imagine I’ve seen numerous cathedrals in my lost wonderings all over Italy, and Greece, even Turkey. But the opulence of this particular space is almost overwhelming. According to the cathedral’s website, “[St. John’s] was built as the conventual church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art.”

The entire cathedral is built in marble and foiled in real gold. So much gold! I am overwhelmed by all the gold. My first thoughts as I walk into the massive opening of the church, with its gilded round ceilings, and allotted marble slots is: did Jesus ever imagine that he would be worshipped in something so massively wealthy? Would he love it, or hate it? I am uncertain.

The art is beautiful, of that there is no doubt. The cathedral has nine chapels, four on the right and five on the left. Each chapel holds at least one burial piece, of some famous Grandmaster, or knight, that did something famous for the church. The guide’s voice in my headphones rambles on through names of famous families I’ve never heard of, and colonial explorers I never knew existed. I am more fascinated by the fact that peoples bodies are buried all around me, than the acts of knights of old. In each chapel bodies are buried. Underneath my feet there are plaques commemorating burial sites, and deep under the cathedral floor, in the Grand Masters’ Crypt, are the sarcophagi of at least 5 church members. It’s like I’m walking in the most expensive most elaborate tomb in the world!

I wonder if the Christians realize that while the Egyptians build pyramids, and used some of them as burial sites, likewise, the Europeans build cathedrals and entombed their famous dead as elaborately as any Egyptian pharaoh.

Walking through each section, filming the walls and art pieces, I cannot miss the violence of colonialism. Numerous pieces have African and indigenous representations either bowing or carrying the weight of their oppressors. It makes me terribly uncomfortable tbh and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Do other people see it I wonder? It’s easy to miss the depictions of ‘savage’ men on the bottom of statues, underneath gilded coats of armour, or even pulpit stairs.

In fact, this image of the black mermen (?) holding up the stairs on their backs stands out more than anything else, which is saying a lot considering how much gold and marble I’m breathing in. The image is made of some kind of dark almost ebony wood, with gold tracing outlining body and facial features. It looks like a merman with a protruding belly. Underneath his elongated body is a screaming face or mask, which looks very African in origin but don’t quote me, that’s not my area of expertise. Below the intimidating African image is either the face of a young woman, or an idingenous man. I am leaning more towards a woman’s face as the features seem European, but many indigenous men were feminized in colonialist art so this could also be a possibility.

I am perplexed by this image. I stand under it taking pics for at least 20 min, trying to get a shot of the features of each piece and figure out why anyone would choose such a grotesque or macabre subject. The implications are racial, of course, and supremacist in nature, but the result has a perplexing effect. Either way, I am left pondering the pieces as I walk towards yet another gold gilded chapel.

The Chapel of the Langue of Germany, dedicated to the Epiphany is probably the most elaborately covered in covetered gold material. This is the only chapel that has no funerary monuments dedicated to Grandmasters. This is because the only German Grandmaster of the Order was Ferdinand Von Hompesch, and his reign lasted only one year prior the expulsion of the Order from Malta by Napoleon. Grandmaster Hompesch died in Montpelier. While the chapel is the most decadent, in my opinion, the art itself is not particularly great 😬. I mean look, even the lions look like they’d rather be somewhere else lol, but the gold is incredible. Pure gold filament pretty much covers every piece of wall within this chapel. I cant stop staring at it! Gold really is the most mesmerizing metal huh…

ART AND ALL THE CONTROVERSY

At the top of the church, is a statue sculpted by Malta’s greatest sculptor, Melchiorre Gafa. He began the work in 1666, but died a year later in a foundry accident while working on the piece. Consequently, in 1703, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, Gafa’s only pupil finished the work left by his master. This sculpture is particularly interesting because even though it looks like two separate pieces it was moulded out of one large solid piece of rock.

The Baptism of Jesus

But it is not the death of the artist and the completion by his student that makes this sculpture controversial. It is its subject. This is a depiction of the patron saint of the Order, John the Baptist, baptizing an adult Jesus. Which at first you might be like ok… so what? Well, the act of baptism in the Catholic Church is symbolic of the cleansing or remission of sin. John baptizing Jesus suggests his human flaw. That is, Jesus was human and sinned, and John cleansed him of his sins through baptism. To you and me, the humanity of Jesus may or may not be an issue of controversy, but the Catholic Church does not accept a sinning, human Jesus, and certainly not one that needed to be ‘cleansed’ by another mostly likely sinning, human. As such, it is rumoured that the Order of the Knights of Malta faced papal retribution before being expelled from the island by Napoleon in 1798. Rumoured. Cause with orders of knights, things have always been secretive and mysterious.

And so we come to the tumultuous, perhaps murderous artist, Caravaggio…

I’m not an art connoisseur by any means, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Michelangelo and a DaVinci, but this painting gave me pause. Also, I really like saying his name 😝 I say it with the most epic Italian accent, like: Carravaaagio 😁😁 don’t yell at me Italian besties!

Two incredible Caravaggio paintings are in the Oratory. The Oratory, according to Catholic Church cannon, is a structure other than the church parish set aside for private or semi private prayer. This Oratory is as elaborately decorated as the rest of the catherdral, and houses two of Caravagios famous paintings.

The smaller of the two, is Saint Jerome Writing, and sits opposite the altar. Completed sometime between 1605-1606 right before the fateful murder that changed Caravaggio’s life forever, this painting depicts an elderly Saint Jerome scribbling/writing/translating (?) the Christian Bible from Greek to Latin. Saint Jerome is considered the patron said of librarians, translators and encyclopedists and so I spent a little time trying to analyze the highlighted look on his face and the symbolic skull (the only other highlighted item) on the table. The association of ageing and death, or dying, is unmistakable and makes for a somewhat ponderous viewing.

This painting was stolen from the cathedral in 1984 by two thieves who simply placed a chain with a sign the ‘work was being done’ across the entrance to the museum balcony, where the painting was originally kept. They then walked in and cut the painting right out of its frame, rolled it up and walked out. Better than a movie? Yes ma’am. For 2yrs no one could find or hear anything about the painting and then one day a young man delivered an envelope to Fr. Marius Zerafa, the Director of the Museum, and a local priest. Inside the envelope was a recording and a Polaroid picture of the painting asking for $500,000 Maltese dollars. Long story short, 8 months later, and numerous threatening phone calls and tiny pieces of the painting mailed to Fr. Zerafa, the police narrowed their search and found the two theieves in a shoe factory in Marsa. The painting was recovered (though somehwat damaged from all the rips and tiny tears) and the thieves were arrested. Interestingly, before making it to court, the first thief died of an an ‘accidental’ overdose and the other died ‘of natural causes’. Just goes to show you, dont mess with the Church and its godly paintings 😁

If you thought that was interesting lets talk about the second, and most interesting Carraviagio painting, that is about three times the size of Saint Jerome Writing and is titled The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. This masterpiece, completed in 1608, depicts the decaptiaion of John the Baptist, which is fitting, since this is his cathedral.

Placed behind and above the altar, this work is purposely painted deceptively simple with most of the painting awash in dark browns and shadows, highlighting only the image of the gruesome event about to happen in the left hand corner. John is lying on the floor, his body pale and fragile. He wears a bright red shawl, or wrap, around his waist and lower body, clearly meant to symbolize the blood of life and death. In front of him, a young woman, perhaps Salome (?) leans over a large laundry basket, in waiting for the violent deed. Staring at John on the floor, the viewer can clearly see her anticipation at sticking his decapitated head in her basket. And older woman covers her face in horror, she seems to be only one upset by the act of decapitating a man on the cold cellar floor. To her right, a janitor (?) looks down on John. He is wearing a great cloak (symbolizing greed maybe?) pointing down as though demanding the execution take place immediately. Above John’s body stands a young man with a knife at John’s throat and one hand in his hair holding his head in the right place for slicing a vein. The young man, is also half naked, but in contrast to John, his body looks strong and a healthy shade of pinkish nude. The most fascinating detail about this painting is right near the bottom, where John’s neck has started to bleed from the cutting, Caravaggio took some of this ‘blood’ and signed his name underneath: F. Caravaggio (Frate Caravaggio). It is the only painting he ever signed. It’s startling to see it. Almost like Carravagio is saying I know this image disturbs you and I take full responsibility, it is meant to.

Caravaggio was a complicated and tumultuous man. Some of his violence was brought on by his shit orphan life, and his continued run ins with the law, but also much of his temperamental and violent behaviour was a result of all the lead he breathed and ingested while painting. In 1606 he murdered a Roman pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni, and as a result of this crime he fled to Malta, where his famed painting skills got him an initiation into the Order. Of course the Order knew nothing of this crime (or so we are told) and they happily commissioned his work (hence, this famous painting). In fact, he was ordained as part of the Order right here, in the Oratory, underneath his only signed masterpiece.

Ironically, but perhaps exactly in line with how shitty Caravaggio’s life had been, he was later disavowed by the Order in 1608, when they heard of his crimes. His Order membership was removed right in this room! RIGHT UNDER HIS OWN PAINTING!!

I cannot help but see some foreshadowing here. While Caravaggio portrayed the physical death of John the Baptist by those who were close to him, he may have also signed his name on THIS ONE painting as a forever reminder to thousands and thousands of future viewers, that art sometimes comes as a result of great loss and great suffering, and eventually, an uneventful death. Carravagio died 2 years after he was sent away from Malta, days after his arrival in Port Ercole, most likely due to lead poisoning.

I hold this thought for a long while in my mind… It’s incredible to think about. Heart breaking, really, and for a moment I want to scream at the injustice of it all. At all the injustice, at all the violence and greed and opulence and arrogance of it all. But I cannot scream. After all, I am in the Oratory, where one must remember to be prayer silent, and take your history with a spoon or two of pain and injustice, and then make sure to leave your headphones and radio guide at the door. ✌🏼

Categories: Travel Journal

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