Category Archives: History Explained

A History of the Wignacourt: Part IV

Artistic and architectural progress: this is the Wignacourt and its surroundings’ story during the second half of the 17th century.

In 1653, a business-savvy woman by the name of Cosmana Navarra funded the building of a larger parish church right opposite the Wignacourt Museum. The design of this new church was left in the able hands of the architect Francesco Buonamici, but the plans had to be handed over to Capomastri Lorenzo Gafà and Pawluccju Formosa, as on 16th April 1664 Buonamici headed back to Rome.

Although the Wignacourt with the adjoining St Paul’s Grotto and the parish church of Rabat have been two completely separate entities since 1607, their history has always remained intertwined. A portrait, as well as Cosmana Navarra’s death mask, in fact, can still be found at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat. Navarra’s project was colossal at the time, but it turned out to be the beginning of a boom in artistic and architectural projects in or around the area of the Wignacourt.  In fact, in the same year that Buoanimici left for Rome, the renowned Dutch engraver Wilhelm Shellinks, who was on a trip funded by the lawyer Laurens van der Hem, visited Malta. His job while on this journey was to record on paper the places he visited, and the sacred mound and environs of the Grotto were featured in some of his work. 

On 18th January 1665, the Wignacourt as we know it today was slowly coming together. St Publius’s church, which is found atop the Grotto of St Paul, was being enlarged and lengthened to bring it in-line with the new façade. And as all this was happening, the Chaplains who lived at the Wignacourt registered in the acts of Notary Nicola Arregritto that in agreement with Giuseppe Iguanez and his son Mario, they were to acquire part of the catacombs of St Paul.

Statue of St Paul by Melchiorre Cafà

Statue of St Paul by Melchiorre Cafà

For over a decade after that, a whole range of artists added their touch to the Grotto and the adjoining complexes, including the famous baroque sculptor Melchiorre Cafà who was commissioned to sculpt a marble statue of St Paul. Although Cafà worked on the statue for two years (1666-1668) he never completed the work, and Ercole Ferrata took over upon Cafà’s death in 1668 and finished it in the same year.

By 1680, the Grotto had become such an integral part of the Church and the Order of the Knights’ happenings, that before Grandmaster Carafa attended his own installation ceremony (which took place in Mdina on 29th June 1680), he attended mass at St Paul’s Grotto, once again showcasing the power of the Knights and their close affiliation with genuine holy sites and the Church.

As the Grotto’s importance grew, however, so did its premises, and on 1st September 1680 the site of the college adjoining the Grotto was extended and an extra portion of land was bought. In 1683 – the same year the Rabat parish church was completed – Lorenzo Gafà was commissioned to remodel the passage leading from the college to the Grotto.

The Coat of Arms of Grandmaster Carafa on the  façade of Auberge D'Italie, Valletta. (Source:

The Coat of Arms of Grandmaster Carafa on the façade of Auberge D’Italie, Valletta. (Source:

These alterations and renovations never ceased, and as the 17th century turned to the 18th, the Wignacourt would keep on growing in both size and importance. But that’s a whole other story waiting to be told…

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum, its adjoining complexes and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at


What Defines Baroque?

‘Baroque’ is a word that often gets thrown around, but what does it mean and what defines it as such?

Romanesque, gothic, neoclassical and postmodern: many words have been coined to describe and allude to different styles of architecture, painting, sculpture and music. What differentiates between these terms is a simple train of thought that was ubiquitous in the era during which that particular style was in vogue. The term ‘baroque’, for example, relates to the style of European architecture and art of the 17th and 18th centuries – and in a nutshell, it was all about extravagance, luxury and excess.

© Bildagentur Huber / Hans-Peter Huber

The Palace of Versailles
© Bildagentur Huber / Hans-Peter Huber

What we must understand about the baroque is that it followed the Renaissance, which had completely dismantled the architecture, social frameworks and, more importantly, the beliefs of the Dark Ages. One of the prime examples of baroque architecture is the palace of Versailles in France, which is adorned with gold, glass, mirrors, crystal and paintings. Everything about this extraordinary palace points to three logical and obvious truths: King Louis XIV was rich, he had great taste, and he didn’t see his vanity as sin.

In Malta, the baroque period enjoyed its heyday under the Knights of St John, and can be particularly seen and experienced within the walls of the city of Valletta. Although the city’s motto is ‘Città Umilissima’ (Latin for: a humble city), the architecture of Valletta also has elements of another rich style. The Mannerist style was a 16th-century Italian art form that was characterised by distortions in scale and perspective, as well as by the use of bright and lurid colours. This, in more ways than one, was the precursor of the baroque style.

Some of Valletta’s, and consequentially Malta’s, most precious treasures are from this era, in fact. Caravaggio was active during the early baroque period, and the Beheading of St John is the epitome of baroque art. St John’s Co-Cathedral’s famous interiors were also created during the baroque period and now stand testimony to the wealth and taste of both the Order as well as the Church at the time.

The Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, although much humbler than St John’s Co-Cathedral and Versailles, also has baroque elements.  Features from this period in artistic and architectural history can be seen in both its stonework and also in many of the paintings on display, particularly those by Mattia Preti who was one of the most famous painters active in Malta during that period.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at