If you search for the top things to do in Valletta, the capital of Malta, you’ll find St John Cathedral at the top of the list in any guide. You’ll also find it by the name of St John’s Co-Cathedral or the Cathedral of St John The Baptist.

I don’t necessarily visit every church that comes my way when I explore a city, but this is one that you shouldn’t miss, and I’ll tell you why further on.

St John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta

First of all, St John’s is a Co-Cathedral because it shares the seat of Malta’s Archbishop with The Cathedral of St Paul in Mdina, the former Maltese capital.

A Little History

St John’s Cathedral was commissioned by the knights of the Order of St John in the 16th century. On the outside, its most striking feature is the bell tower. It hosts three clocks, each one showing a different thing: the time, the day of the week, and the date.

Entering from the simple, Maltese limestone exterior, the ornate interior comes as a complete surprise. Once a simply decorated cathedral, it has today one of the most striking interiors. Bombings affected the cathedral during WW2, so some reconstruction was necessary afterward.

Walls and ceiling details inside St. John Cathedral in Malta
Incredible details inside St John Cathedral in Malta

The Baroque interior is the work of Mattia Preti, a Calabrian artist.
It’s impossible to absorb all the details inside the cathedral. Carved stone walls, the painted vaulted ceiling depicting St John the Baptist scenes, and a grand altar will all catch your eye.

However, the attraction that draws the crowd to St John Cathedral in Malta is Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist painting.

Caravaggio at St John’s Cathedral

Michelangelo Merisi, the Italian painter known as Caravaggio, was convicted for murder in Italy and fled to hide on the tiny Malta island. While there, St John’s Order hired him to create two paintings for the cathedral. They are both still in the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral.

The largest represents The Beheading of St John the Baptist. It’s the only painting having Caravaggio’s signature. The painter signed his work in St John’s spilling blood.

Caravaggio's painting inside St John Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.
The Beheading of St John the Baptist at St John Cathedral in Malta

The other Caravaggio hanging in the Oratory is Saint Jerome Writing. Caravaggio had already painted another canvas on the same subject, you can see it in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The Marble Floor

The feature I was most impressed with inside St John Cathedral in Malta was the marble floor. Even though Caravaggio’s work is nothing short of impressive, I haven’t seen this type of marble work before.

The entire cathedral’s floor is covered in tombstones. 400 Knights of the Order are lying here. Their resting places are covered with marble artwork representing skeletons and other suggestive imagery.

For me, the flooring was more interesting than the rich gold leaf adornings of the walls and ceilings.

Useful info 

  • Address: Visitors entrance in on Triq Ir-Repubblika, Valletta
  • Adult tickets are 15€
  • The entrance fee includes an audio guide which will provide a lot of details about the cathedral and the works of art displayed.
  • Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9:30 AM- 4:30 PM Saturday 9:30 AM 12:30PM. Closed on Sundays.
  • Necessary time – we spent about one hour inside, but that’s the minimum amount of time. Allow more if you really want to observe all the details.
  • As with any religious place, dress appropriately, covering your knees and shoulders. Also, thin heels are prohibited inside because they could damage the marble floor.
  • There are toilets available inside the cathedral, but no wardrobe or lockers. If you bring a backpack, you should wear it in your hand or in front to prevent damaging any decorations on the walls.

Final thoughts

Even if you have a short time in Valletta, St John’s Cathedral is one of the attractions you shouldn’t miss in Malta.

A good idea for a short visit is to book this guided tour that includes both the cathedral and the Malta experience.


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