The writing’s on the church wall
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The writing’s on the church wall

Panorama of Mattia Preti’s paintings on the vault in St John’s Co-Cathedral. Photos: eFesenko/Shutterstock.com

Panorama of Mattia Preti’s paintings on the vault in St John’s Co-Cathedral. Photos: eFesenko/Shutterstock.com

Contrasting with the dismal news of collapsing Mass attendances and clerical sex abuse scandals, if one wishes to understand some life-giving messages of the Church, joining a Pietre Vive tour of St John’s Co-Cathedral is a good way to start, Joseph Grech discovers.

While more and more of the Maltese faithful, especially young people, are shunning the Church, thousands upon thousands of foreign visitors gladly pay for the privilege of visiting this cathedral, built by the Knights of the Order of St John and dedicated to its patron saint – John the Baptist.

However, any church is not intended to be an ostentatious showpiece but a source of spiritual nourishment, and so it was for this order of noblemen (and some women) who dedicated their lives to be Hospitallers – offering medical care and hospitality to the sick and pilgrims in need of shelter and defending the Christian faith from the threats of the times.

While today’s visitors to the cathedral are obviously impressed by the visual feast inside the church, the contrast with their daily life experience is so stark it can be bewildering, numbing and leave their interior life untouched. Pietre Vive, literally meaning living stones, is an international association of lay volunteers in Europe and beyond who, inspired by Ignatian spirituality, learn about the deeper meanings and messages behind the paintings and sculptures of churches within their respective countries and then offer their services free of charge to guide individuals or very small groups of people to ‘encounter’ this sacred art. The local group performs this voluntary service at St John’s.

During the visit I took part in, our guide focused mainly on two aspects of the cathedral – Mattia Preti’s series of paintings of the life of St John the Baptist, which cover the entire church’s vaulted ceiling, and Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John in the adjacent oratory chapel. There is obviously a lot more to see in the cathedral, but as with many life situations, if one tries to take it all in at once, one would either get an artistic indigestion or just skim over the surface, and while one might end up with lots of photos to upload on Facebook, one would not have truly tasted or understood anything.

First and foremost, our guide set our bearings: the cathedral’s main façade faces the west, whence the sun sets, and the altar is on the east, whence the sun rises; so, if one enters from its main door one is figuratively leaving darkness, which represents death and doubt, and going towards the light, which represents life and truth. When we embark on any journey we need to use our past and present, but look forward to a new and greater future. And our guide asked us to imagine the incredibly inspiring sight in the times of the knights, of hundreds of candles lighting up the high altar, with Giuseppe Mazzuoli’s 1703 monumental white marble  Baptism of Christ sculpture, crowned with the gilded radiating rays of light.

A huge painting in the lunette above the main door shows on the left side the Hospitaller Knights’ role of tending to the sick, while on the right side a Grand Master points to one of the Order’s ships, representing its military role at the frontier of Christian Europe. The middle of the painting depicts an allegory of the triumph of the Great Siege of 1565, which the knights overcame despite being heavily outnumbered. The message: Majorities, even overwhelming odds, need not dishearten the brave. In fact, studies suggest that it takes as little as 3.5 per cent of a minority population engaged in a sustained campaign to achieve a goal.

But ironically, in the central part of the same painting, all the knights are dead, with angels flying down from heaven with palm fronds in the hands for each martyr, while the Ottomans in the foreground are very much alive and kicking. The message that comes across is that just as the knights, like Christ, laid down their lives in order for us to live in peace, evil will continue to thrive… And other angels hold a crown, signifying that God’s kingdom is not on this earth...

In the whole cathedral, this is the only painting about the history of the Order. For knights entering through the main door, as for us today, this painting is about our history. But how were they, and we, meant to proceed? Not by looking down or around, but up!

The great Italian artist Mattia Preti used the entire vaulted ceiling of the cathedral as his canvas. All the paintings are about St John, and sought to inspire the knights to reflect on the life of the Baptist, patron saint of the Order. And the messages Preti sought to convey through his paintings can still be understood today by all visitors, irrespective of their language – they only need to use their eyes.

So, with the help of our guide, we began  to understand these paintings: we see Zechariah, being visited by the angel bringing him a vision – the good news that his wife, despite her old age, will bear him a son, and is to be called John (yo-chanan – ‘Yahweh is gracious’ – in Hebrew, from which the word Ħanin in Maltese, meaning ‘merciful’ in English, is also derived). The guide points out that this theme of mercy and of a merciful God is repeated throughout the church. Again, the message of hope overcoming all odds comes across…

The cathedral can be seen as a living monument helping us today remember where we come from, are going, and how to get there

Opposite the first painting of Zechariah’s vision is one showing the nativity of St John, his infancy. As the guide points out, all the angels that fill the empty spaces surrounding the scenes are very small, and moreover they carry flowers and banners – objects signifying purity and innocence. But in subsequent paintings showing an older St John the angels also grow, and they start carrying objects like swords and armour. This signifies the struggles one must face to grow in life, but also that there is always help available to help one get to where one wants to go.

The apse and high altar of St John’s Co-Cathedral, including the Baptism of Christ, Giuseppe Mazzuoli’s 1703 monumental white marble sculpture.The apse and high altar of St John’s Co-Cathedral, including the Baptism of Christ, Giuseppe Mazzuoli’s 1703 monumental white marble sculpture.

We walked slowly through the cathedral from west to east towards the high altar, with our eyes falling on ceiling painting after another. Every story in the gospels where St John is mentioned is depicted in the paintings. Sometimes several episodes are merged into one painting.

St John was, in effect, a teacher, and every painting held a lesson for the knights, as it does for visitors today. Yet St John is always humble, pointing away from himself, as if to say: “The message is not me. I am only preparing the way to make it easier for you.”

The theme of being washed from sin is clearly a very important one throughout the cathedral. We see parallels between the knights’ martyrdom, Christ’s baptism and St John’s beheading – that of being baptised with water and blood in order to be born again – salvation.

Behind the main altar one finds Giuseppe Mazzuoli’s Baptism of Christ sculpture showing St John in the moment of baptising Christ. This episode is also recalled halfway along the painted vault of the cathedral. It is the first time in Jesus’s story that we learn who he is, with God announcing: “This is My Son”. Immediately after being baptised, Jesus still feels the need to retreat into the desert to discover what his mission in life is. And to do so he needs to overcome various temptations.

And at this point when Jesus’s story begins, John’s story changes. In wall painting (in the third bay, north side of the nave), the artist includes in the baptism scene a cross, thorns and other symbols of suffering – symbols of the passion Christ was to go through. Further along the vault, towards the eastern end of the cathedral, angels are depicted as large laughing devils, complete with horns and tails.

The paintings showing John being caught, imprisoned and eventually beheaded are all positioned near the high altar, showing their important messages. Some depict John provoking and challenging earthly authority, in the form of Herod on the throne. Herod is seen listening to John, almost admiring him for his honesty, yet he is also aware that John had followers, and if due to John’s teachings the crowds start to think for themselves this could undermine Herod’s authority and grip on power. Messages as true today as they were 2,000 years ago.

After Salomé, with the instigation from her mother, Herodias, asks for the head of the Baptist, the final picture shows John’s decapitated body and an angel carrying the staff that he carried throughout his journey, that helped him to walk, but which he doesn’t need anymore. A banner symbolising triumph that appeared in the first painting of the Knights in the Great Siege reappears in this final painting of St John.

The merging of the two stories completes the circle. The message: Your victory is not always an earthly one. You may lose your life but if you are faithful to the end you will not  lose everything.

The entire cathedral can, in fact, be seen as a living monument whose function was that of helping the knights then, and us today, to remember – where we are coming from, where we are going and how to get there.

Today, most visitors enter the cathedral from the side door behind Antonio Sciortino’s famous monument commemorating the Great Siege – and over the past 17 months much mentioned in connection with another notorious murder. As soon as visitors enter this side door, if they lift their eyes they will see paintings showing St John preaching. On the side of one of the paintings, a knight looks directly at us. His right hand beckons us to stop and his left hand points to St John. He is telling us to stop upon entering the church – a holy place.

Other paintings depict other important people, who really lived, were part of the Order, and have since died – some in battle. Some of the individuals were nuns in the Order who used to pray for the knights when they went on their missions.

These individuals all have shadows as though they are three-dimensional figures jutting out of the paintings. This is because they were ‘real’ people, as opposed to the other figures in the paintings, which are two-dimensional. They were still alive in the knights’ memory and act the mediums between them (us) and the messages of the paintings and those St John is seeking to pass on.

John never points to himself. He points upwards. He points to a banner. He points to the need for us to reconcile ourselves with the One who created us. Again, the theme of repentance and mercy – repent and you will be forgiven – as true today as it ever was.

To find out more about the Pietre Vive initiative, send an e-mail to pietrevive.malta@gmail.com or segreteriepietrevive@gmail.com.

(To be concluded)

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