The Malta Independent 8 December 2022, Thursday
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A truly majestic experience

Owen Bonnici Friday, 27 May 2022, 09:48 Last update: about 7 months ago

St John’s Co-Cathedral is indeed a gem and a wonder in itself.  It is one of those places where the more you visit it, the more you fall in love with it.

It was built more than 500 years ago upon commission by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere and was designed by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar.  Subsequent Grand Masters – particularly Raphael Dotoner and Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, presided over the redecoration of the interior of the temple in the Baroque style and the addition of the annexes on the side.

During Alof de Wignacourt’s tenure, the famed but troublesome Italian painter Caravaggio became the official painter of the Order and was also induced as a Knight.  Unfortunately, his experience as a full member of the Knights of Malta was short-lived . After a mere year, he was arrested and imprisoned due to another brawl with an aristocratic Knight and expelled from the the Order. 

Caravaggio managed to escape from imprisonment and fled to Sicily.  During his time in Malta, the famed artist produced the majestic Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which is a painting which stands out from all the rest not only for its size but also because it is the only work of art which was signed by the “Fra Caravaggio”.  That painting and the famous painting “Saint Jerome Writing” are situated in Saint John’s cathedral.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was produced as a result of a direct commission by the Knights of Malta, and it can still be found proudly standing in the Oratory of the Co-Cathedral.  The other painting, Saint Jerome Writing, is now located in a part of the temple (upon exiting it), dedicated to the painting itself.  In this part, one can find interactive information about the work: a useful addition.

Of course, the interior of the Co-Cathedral is also a celebration of the artist’s work from Calabria Mattia Preti, who effectively transformed it in the Baroque style after being commissioned to do that during Cotoner’s reign.

One of the best things which happened to the Co-Cathedral was the establishment of the Foundation, which was set up in 2001 to administer this impressive building of spirituality, art and history.  Bolstered by the funds which the Co-Cathedral generates from its large thousands of visitors per year, various projects have been undertaken in the past, are currently being undertaken in the present and will be undertaken in the future under the twin leadership of State and Church presidencies (which alternate every six months).

I thank all those who have given service to the Co-Cathedral, particularly to the current President Glen Micallef and the President-Designate Mons. Prof Emanuel Agius for the hard work they are putting in to take the visitor’s experience to another level and showcase all the historical riches that the Co-Cathedral has to offer in the eventual new museum.

A list of all the patrimony situated in the Co-Cathedral would be endless. Still, I would like to mention the most important: the set of tapestries which was a gift by Grand Master Ramon Perellos upon his election in 1697.  The designs were based on cartoons made by Peter Paul Rubens and consisted of 29 pieces initially made in Brussels.  Also, the silver collection occupies pride and place: this includes the Ferri monstrance for the relic of St John commissioned by Grand Master Carafa.

I had the opportunity to visit the Co-Cathedral this week and thank the hard-working staff, led by the new Chief Executive Tonio Mallia and Curator Cynthia de Giorgio.  Indeed, the workers are very passionate about what they do because they work in one of the most beautiful man-made buildings on Earth.

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Festas are part and parcle of our culture and identity.  It is indeed a feat to see the organisation of not one but a multitude of week-long festivals each week around the various villages in Malta and Gozo during the hundred days of summer and during the other months of the year.

What’s more, those festas result from hard work coming directly from the grass-roots, and there you have an authentic cultural expression that is not engineered from above but directly and closely with the people.

At the basis of this feast of Maltese culture lie the hundreds of volunteers hailing from all ages and from all walks of life who literally give their all to have a successful festive period.  These volunteers engage in all sorts of fundraising activities all year round, and others hold other initiatives to raise the name of their entity proudly.

The two years of the pandemic created new challenges for festa organisers. Of course, during the two years, organisers could not organise the needed fundraising activities, and many volunteers found themselves spending much more time at home than they had ever spent in their life. It is being claimed that some of the volunteers decided to abandon the previous hectic life in the community for this newly-found quiet life with their families.

This is not only applicable to volunteers, but it is being claimed that even musicians who before participated in band marches in the various festas have opted for the newly-found quiet life as opposed to the pre-pandemic one.  This led to a phenomenon where the remaining musicians asked for raised fees to participate in band processions due to the classic supply/demand tension.

Also, the covid-related restrictions were lifted in toto only several weeks ago (although the lifting of measures process started gradually in the weeks and months before), giving feast organisers limited time to organise the festas.  There is also good news: some Festa organisers superbly rose to the occasion.  For instance, the St Joseph Band Club of Ghaxaq did not only manage to have everything in place for the festa, which will start in the coming days but has also delivered two major concerts featuring Ira Losco and Ivan Grech in a packed Ghaxaq ground.

I believe that a successful Festa season this Summer will essentially put festas back on track and give the necessary stimulus and energy for a renewed voluntary movement on the ground.  To this end, to help and assist the Festa ecosystem, we have pledged to invest EUR 500,000 as a one-off fund for this immediate post-covid year in order to help Band clubs, Festa decoration organisations (the so-called tal-armar) and pyrotechnic clubs (the so-called tan-nar) up to EUR 2,000 each to offset logistical expenses.

The scheme, launched this week, has opened today.

 

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