Machiavelli, Caravaggio, and Malta

Luther’s Malta and the Mediterranean Program, currently in its 26th year, offers students the opportunity to spend a semester exploring Malta's rich history and traveling to other countries in the Mediterranean region. Coursework includes Paideia II: Ethical Issues in the Mediterranean, a Service Learning class, where program participants teach English to recent immigrants to Malta, Maltese History and Culture and additional classes taken at the University of Malta.

To learn more about the program, visit the Malta Semester website.

On Tuesday afternoon our group met in Valletta, Malta's capital, for a guided tour of St. John's Co-Cathedral. We had learned about the Cathedral weeks before during a history lecture at the University of Malta. After hearing about the beauty of the Cathedral and all of the artwork inside, I was especially eager to fully immerse myself.

St. John's Co-Cathedral was commissioned and built in the late 16th century by the Grandmaster of the Order of St. John. The Order inhabited Malta from the early 1500s until 1798, when French forces took over the island. As described by the professor who guided our tour, the Order used the Cathedral as a place of worship, specifically to unite and honor those who had fallen during battle.

We learned about the power of art while gazing at the stunning ceiling and the images that painted each wall. The professor described the importance of the depictions of St. John the Baptist that followed along the ceiling. Machiavelli, the artist that was in charge of decorating the Cathedral, painted the ceiling by hand to show the life of St. John from the announcement of his birth to the baptizing of Christ, as well as his death. Machiavelli painted the ceiling so that your eye follows along with the story and points to key figures during St. John's life. It would be so easy to spend days staring at each detail that was flawlessly executed around the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is decorated with a baroque style, meaning that each intricate detail stands alone beautifully but also contributes to make the entire place seem like a piece of art. There is just so much to look at! I traced my eyes from corner to corner, trying not to miss anything! Even the floor, which also functions as a burial place for Knights of the Order, is an art form. The professor explained that the floor alone has been described as the most beautiful floor in the world.

By far the most interesting part of St. John's Co-Cathedral is the Caravaggio painting. According to the story told by the professor, Caravaggio escaped to Malta after murdering a man and became close with the high powers in the Order. Caravaggio painted the beheading of St. John for the Cathedral in exchange for Knightship. In the painting, Caravaggio declared his appointment as a Knight by including "Sir" in his signature. He also signed his name with the blood of St. John!

While wandering through the Cathedral, I kept thinking about how most people don't even know where Malta is or what it is. Yet here I was in a jaw-dropping cathedral staring at the work of famous artists. I was surrounded by history and stood upon the graves of prestigious officers from the Order. Malta surprises me more each day.

View from the balcony
The ceiling at St. John's Cathedral