After the great victory of 1565, the Order of Saint John proceeds to the construction of the new city of Valletta. During their stay in Vittoriosa between 1530 and 1571, the Order had used the parish church of St. Lawrence in this city for their spiritual needs, but this was only a temporary solution. As might be expected, the Knights included the erection of a conventual church in their construction program.
The Grand Master Jean de Valette (1557-1568) did not live to see the completion of the city that bears his name, and the transfer of the Order of Vittoriosa to Valletta was carried out during the magistracy in his successor, Pietro del Monte (1569 -72), who decreed but did not build a conventual church. Its erection was left to his successor, Jean Lévesque Jean de Cassière (1572-81), whose magistracy witnessed the construction of most of the important public buildings in Valletta. The conventual church, naturally named after the patron saint of the Order, Saint John the Baptist, was solemnly consecrated on February 20, 1578.
While the Order still resided in Vittoriosa, the General Chapter of 1569 decreed in November the erection of the Conventual Church of the Knights in the new city, whose defenses 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 first chaplain, rooms for conventual chaplains (as priests of the Order were known) and an enclosed space for a cemetery.
However, it was four years before the building actually started. It really began on the initiative of the French Grand Master of Cassière, of whom Bartholomeo dal Pozzo, historian of the Order, wrote: “… in the midst of the din of Turkish arms and civil clashes within the Order, inflamed religious zeal and piety, it began its construction in 1573 ”.
Indeed, de Cassière was a valiant warrior who had distinguished himself during the 1552 assault on Zouara in North Africa where he saved the colors of the Order from the enemy. He attained the rank of Marshal of the Order (reserved for the French language of Auvergne) and enjoyed a great reputation in Malta and abroad.
His subsequent problems with members of the Order were to lead to his deposition, but he was eventually reinstated and vindicated by the Pope. Indeed, he was authoritarian and autocratic in his methods but there is no question of his sincere motives and his religious zeal, a prime example being the construction of St John’s which he personally bore the cost. The first site reserved 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 Center. It was then realized that the bell would disturb patients in the hospital 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 center of the new town. Due to its elevation and central position, this site was found to be in a better location for the Order’s most important church.
However, the site had already been allocated free of charge to brothers Angelo and Manoli Metaxi (or Metals), two priests of Rhodes of the Greek Eastern Rite, who had already been working on the construction of a Greek church for about two years.
The Grand Master of Cassière insisted on the exchange of the two sites and a deed of cession was drawn up and signed before the notary Placido Abela on June 23, 1572. The site had a length of 25 canes along the Strada San Giacomo (today ‘ hui rue des Marchands) by 17 canes along the Strada del Monte (now St John’s Street).
According to an inscription on the main door of the church, the first stone was laid on November 1, 1573, but no description of this event has been revealed, at least so far. The works seem to have taken place at a fairly steady pace because the same inscription further specifies that the building was completed on June 22, 1577.
The church was built according to the plans and under the direction of the famous Maltese architect Gerolamo (or Geronimo) Cassar. A Spanish influence is apparent on the facade 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 period. St John’s, in fact, has been described as “one of the strangest and yet one of the most impressive churches in Christendom”. However, it should be borne in mind that Caesar’s “clients”, the Knights of St. John, have a military past which is reflected in the severity of a facade, which resembles a fortress.
On the other hand, the languages of the Order competed with each other to beautify their main church, thus leading to its (later) extraordinary sumptuousness of carved stone and paintings. This mother church of the Order is considered the most impressive building in Cassar.
De Cassière predicted that the Order might have to leave the island because, indeed, they had been forced in the past to abandon their positions in the Holy Land and Rhodes. Therefore, in the founding act of the conventual church, signed before the notary Matteo Briffa on November 23, 1577, the Grand Master established that if the Order renounced the Maltese Islands in the future, the church should be officiated by the clergy. from Malta. This act has remained one of the cornerstones of the local Church’s arguments to prove ownership of the Maltese Curia over St John’s.
But de Cassière went even further than the simple construction of the church. On December 20, 1578, he endowed it with his personal property so that it would always be properly officiated and served. This endowment consisted of the 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 of the goods which had been attributed to him by a brief pontifical of the possessions of Matteo Falzon, a condemned heretic.
But before that endowment could be made, the church was consecrated. Unfortunately, de Cassière did not entrust the consecration to the elected bishop, the fiery Catalan Fra Tommaso Gargallo, who had not yet been consecrated bishop. This decision, in fact, led to the acceptable hypothesis that the future unrest between the Grand Master and the Bishop arose from this event. Instead, on September 17, 1577, de Cassière obtained an Apostolic Brief by which the function of the consecration of St. John was delegated to Bishop Ludovico de Torres, Archbishop of Monreale in Sicily.
At the beginning of February 1578, two galleys of the Order of Saint John were in Syracuse to transport Bishop de Torres to Malta. The prelate arrived on the island on February 5 and, 15 days later – February 20 – the new church was solemnly consecrated with the title of “Great Conventual and Parish Church of the Order of Gerosolimitan, dedicated to Saint John -Baptist ”. A marble table outside the main portal records the event. The new church is immediately submitted to the Holy See and enjoys episcopal privileges.
Dr Joseph F. Grima is a former occasional lecturer in history and deputy director of education whose publications include Żmien il-Kavallieri f’Malta 1530-1798 and The Fleet of the Order of Malta – Its Organization during the Eighteenth Century.
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