Early the next morning, our ship made its way into the port of Valetta, the capital of Malta. Malta is an island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean, just below Sicily. Valetta is Europe’s southernmost capital. It would be a short trek southward from here to the coasts of Tunisia and Libya. Despite sharing the Mediterranean with Italy and Greece, Malta seemed far removed from the likes of anything in our previous ventures. And being this close to Africa gave the island an air of mystique and unique intrigue, being on the edge of a continental divide. There are no mountains or natural rivers that flow through this island nation. It is mostly flat with occasional rolling green hills of various crops and rowed trees.
The city of Valetta commands a foreboding presence. Its Baroque and Neoclassical architecture hang above stone walls, bastions, and other heavy fortifications. The city was founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St John, a military order of the catholic church. They were one of the most imposing military orders of their time. Valetta would be their base of operations as they planned crusades and fended off enemies like the Ottoman Turks. The layered buildings behind these walls had an intentional color palette. The waves of structures loomed over us in their tans, browns, and off-white facades. Bell towers and domed churches rose up, prominent and proud. The colors reminded me of the landscape of a desert. It was as if the buildings sprouted up from some dry, desolate place and were made of sand themselves, like some melting oasis you see through the heat of a lost desert. It was simultaneously welcoming and uncanny.
We departed from the sights from our ship, walked through some bustling streets and town squares until we roamed onto a small peninsula which held the heart of downtown. The streets were narrow and densely packed. Shops, cafes, grocery stores, boutiques, and museums made their modern homes within the looming 16th and 17th century architecture. The contrast of the new and old was perplexing. Terraces, balconies, and an assemblage of flags hovered over us as we strolled. Every street you turned down had a view of the water. It was a thin sliver of deep blue sea squeezed between the tightly packed buildings everywhere you looked. You could stand at an intersection and see the sea from three vantage points. It was like some encroaching army of Poseidon surrounding and blockading us from all sides, never letting us forget their nautical presence.
We eventually came to Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, a massive Roman Catholic church in the heart of downtown. Protruding from the church were giant Doric columns protecting the elegant interior. The outside of the church was a uniform façade made of Maltese limestone. It had an austere and utilitarian air about it. It was daunting and stern, seeming more like a military fortress than a church, not surprising, as it owed its construction to one of the most notorious militant factions of the Catholic church. As we stepped through its doors, we were immediately greeted with the sharpest of contrasts from the plane exterior we had just seen.
The inside was a monumental display of regal power and intricate, over-whelming beauty. Every square inch of this church was covered in ornate, breath-taking architecture filled in by enormous frescos and paintings. Archways laden with chiseled gold of a dazzling splinter drew the eyes up to the arched ceiling of segmented frescos revealing dramatic biblical scenes. Circular windows at the base of these arches illuminated the artworks with the grace of natural light. The paintings had a three-dimensional illusion to them, mimicking an extension of the natural architecture with painted openings at the tops revealing the hallowed, imagined skies above. Angels, cherubs, biblical figures, patron saints, and clergy elites floated in and out of these illusory spaces.
The characters in the paintings were colorful, emotional, and dynamic, almost seeming to move as dangling actors playing out their paramount scenes. As I admired the ceiling for a time, it felt like I slowly began to melt into these artworks. After all, they took up so much of my visual field with their sheer size and seemed to demand the utmost attention and meditation. I felt a weightlessness in my body as my mind gained wings, floating through the spaces between the clouds and figures, dissipating into the skies, and fusing with light. After an elated moment, the sounds of shuffling feet, the echoes of chatter, and the weight of my body returned to me.
I was grounded back to my earthly form, my eyes drawing to my hands and then my feet. Below me was a glistening marble floor with squared off sections displaying names and dates. I realized that I was walking on the tombs of knights and officers of the old order. My surroundings seemed to grow darker with a lingering phantasm as I imagined an army of corpses beneath my feet, their ghostly forms permeating out of the segmental cracks in the floor. This was an abrupt change from the state of mind I was in just moments ago. It’s funny how the mind plays with lightness and darkness just as the eyes do, how a space can transform in an instant merely from our perception. Here I was, the darkness of the dead and rotting below me and the light of the angelic flying above me. I was caught between the wishes and dreams of heaven and the brutal reality of death and decay. I felt the gravity of my mortality, and the fate we all must share. Standing in the church, it felt like I was in a sort of purgatory, an in between place. I could feel the uncanniness of this liminal space I now occupied, fragmented between worlds. I was like a placeholder for something to come. Questions began sprouting from my mind. Am I waiting for the train of oblivion to arrive? Or is there something more? Will my spirit fly like the paintings depicted above, or be cemented in the earth below? It felt like I was biding my time, waiting for something I could neither stop nor control nor understand. I took a deep breath of quiet contemplation and moved on.
We walked towards the front of the nave, facing the altar. The center back wall of the altar, which was the focal point of the alter, displayed pristine marble statues of two prominent figures. One of the figures I assumed was John the Baptist being baptized or christened since the church holds his name. A cherub was clutching his robe in eager adoration. Behind the figures were gold rods forming a circular, concave vortex portraying a kind of celestial explosion of light. A large bird soared from the center as if breathing in all of existence in an outburst of creation. Perhaps it was meant to echo the importance and devotion of the figures below in following Christ and spreading the Christian faith. Either way, it was a loud and flashy marvel that bombarded my eyes in an almost violent and immediate sort of way.
On both side of this centerpiece were two monstrous organs. The tall pipes springing up from the bases were of different lengths and formed stabbing points incased in inlaid gold, resembling spears or arrows of potential sound. The organs laid silent in their dormancy, waiting to fill this space with blustering sounds and thunderous bellows from heaven itself.
The golden archways on both sides of the nave led into small chapel areas. These smaller spaces contained extravagant portraits of various patron saints of the order. These paintings were often surrounded by sleek columns, marble statues, coats of arms, and candle arrangements to fill up the spaces, all residing under elaborately crafted domes. One chapel area stood out to me in a shocking and haunting way. At the bottom of one display were two marble statues, one portraying someone of African descent and the other of Asian descent in an almost caricatured, stereotypical fashion. Their postures, grimacing faces of strain, and their position beneath the rest of the façade insinuated that they were servants or slaves. They were straining under having to hold up the weight of a mantle, atop of which were chiseled flags and weapons of war. In the center of this mantle was a golden bust of someone I assume was a very prominent member of the order, perhaps a general. The splendor and consecrating nature of the golden bust being held up by slaves reflected the absolute power, dominance, and subjugation once committed by the Knight’s Order, and by a larger extension, the Catholic Church.
It seemed so contradictory. This history of racism and these hierarchal structures of sheer, unchecked power were directly opposed to the humbling teachings of Christ the church has claimed to spread. I felt a mixture of sadness and anger at the hypocrisy. For all of this church’s grandiose beauty, this display was a reminder of the church’s dark history wrought with and built by violence, conquest, and enslavement. The funding and richness that allowed this church to exist in all its glory was built on blood and dehumanization. It is an opulent wealth that could only exist through chains, servility, and massive propaganda. I could not get this irony out of head and it subsequently affected the rest of my time in that place. After shuffling about for a bit more in this strange new headspace, we made our way out of the front of the church and into a courtyard. I took one last look at the harsh uniformity of the church’s exterior and made my way back through the streets of downtown, eager to find something new to lift my spirits.
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