The Popes at the Wignacourt: Pope Benedict XVI

Following in Pope John Paul II’s footsteps, Pope Benedict XVI visited Malta in April 2010. His short stay was marked by his many visits to various locations around the island, with one of the most important being his pilgrimage to St Paul’s Grotto. 

Pope Benedict XVI prays inside St Paul's Grotto in Rabat, outside Valletta

Pope Benedict XVI at St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat

When on 10 February 2010 Archbishop Paul Cremona announced that Pope Benedict XVI was coming to Malta for two days, devotees around the island rejoiced. After much preparation and numerous controversies – the most memorable being the one surrounding Paul Vella’s ‘Colonna Mediterranea’ in Luqa – Pope Benedict XVI became the second man to ever visit Malta in his authority as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Over the two days, his Holiness visited many locations around Malta and had meetings with the highest-ranking officials of the island. He was greeted by children with flowers when he visited the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta, and a crowd of around 30,000 people flocked to the Floriana Granaries to take part in a mass concelebrated by the Pope himself.

Because his Holiness’s visit to Malta coincided with the 1950th anniversary of St Paul’s Shipwreck, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the St Paul’s Grotto was an emotional and unique occasion. To mark the event, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech, which addressed the whole Maltese population and outlined St Paul’s Grotto’s importance both for Christianity in Malta as well as for Christianity as a whole.

“My pilgrimage to Malta has begun with a moment of silent prayer at the Grotto of Saint Paul, who first brought the faith to these islands,” said Pope Benedict. “I have come in the footsteps of those countless pilgrims down the centuries who have prayed in this holy place, entrusting themselves, their families and the welfare of this nation to the intercession of the Apostle of the Gentiles. I rejoice to be at last in your midst and I greet all of you with great affection in the Lord!”

At the end of his visit at St Paul’s Grotto, Pope Benedict XVI presented Con. Louis Saban with a sanctuary lamp for St Paul’s Collegiate Church in Rabat. The lamp depicts four scenes from St Paul’s life: his conversion on the road to Damascus, the saint healing the sick in Malta, his shipwreck and his martyrdom.

This trip would sadly be Pope Benedict XVI’s first and last one to the island, as on 28 February 2013, he abdicated the Holy See and Pope Francis I ascended the Papacy. Nevertheless, Benedict XVI’s trip has left a deep impact on Malta’s Roman Catholic society, much more so for the fact that it proved that the island’s population still had Christianity at its core.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the St Paul’s Grotto, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at


Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

As one of St Paul’s Collegiate Church’s most important promoters and benefactors, Franceso Catania has added some amazing pieces to the Wignacourt Museum’s collection. Outlining his importance is a new book that will be launched tonight.

Bust of Notary Francesco Catania

Bust of Notary Francesco Catania

Notary, scholar and devoted collector of works of art and archaeology. Those three adjectives are probably best to describe the late Notary Francesco Catania, who was one of the St Paul’s Collegiate Church’s most noteworthy benefactors.

In his will, in fact, Notary Catania instituted St Paul’s Church as his universal heir, leaving behind an artistic legacy that makes up around a third of all the items exhibited. These include paintings, drawings and watercolours, engravings, maps, Phoenician and Roman pottery, furniture, coins and medals, rare Melitensia books, and sketchbooks and drawings produced by the Notary himself.

His collection gave the Wignacourt some of its most prized possessions, including artworks by Mattia Preti, Antoine Favray and Francesco Zahra; a manuscript from 1833 signed by the Maltese priest, Don Felice Cutajar; and a coin collection that virtually encompasses all of ‘Malta’s Time History’. Even so, this is just a fraction of Catania’s incredible collection as a seven day auction by the St Paul’s Church saw more than 60 per cent of the collection being sold off to other collectors.

Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

Notary Francesco Catania (1872-1960) and his Collections at the Wignacourt Museum

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine the Wignacourt’s collection without Catania’s incredible contribution – one that has made many pieces of invaluable art and archaeology available for the general public to see.

To honour this incredible deed and the legacy that has been left behind, Mgr John Azzopardi, the Wignacourt Museum’s own chief curator, has edited a collection of essays by Emmanuel Azzopardi, Caroline Bartoli, Prof. Alain Blondy, Sarah M. Borg, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, Joseph Galea Naudi, Dr Albert Ganado, Dr Anthony Pace, Bernardine Scicluna, Dr Conrad Thake and Mgr John Azzopardi himself on the matter.

The results of this, in book form, will be launched tonight, 25 February 2014, at the Wignacourt Museum.

To find out more about Notary Catania (1872-1960) and his collections at the Wignacourt Museum or about the Wignacourt Museum itself, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at

The Popes at the Wignacourt: Pope John Paul II

Loved unanimously by both Roman Catholics and practitioners of other faiths, Pope John Paul II was one of the most celebrated popes to-date. So much so, that his visit to Malta in 1990 is an event still etched in many people’s memory.

For thousands of years, Christians were told that pilgrimage was a great way to purify the soul, and for thousands of years, they flocked to many holy sites around Europe and the Middle East to experience something sacred and touched by God. But Pope John Paul II’s willingness to leave Vatican City and travel around the globe to meet his flock meant that the common folk, for the first time in history, could come face to face with the representative of Christ on Earth.

That, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons why Pope John Paul II is one of history’s most beloved Popes. His visit to Malta in 1990 – the first official papal visit to Malta by an ordained Pope – caused a frenzy of excitement and deep piety amongst one of the earliest and proudest Roman Catholic nations in Europe.

During his visit, Pope John Paul II pilgrimaged to some of Malta’s holiest sites, including Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary in Gozo, where he placed a halo of golden stars around the head of the Virgin Mary painted in 1619 by Amadeo Perugino; and St Paul’s Islands, where a statue of Christ by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi was sunk to commemorate the occasion.



On 27 May 1990, Pope John Paul II also visited St Paul’s Grotto, and the episode remains one of the Wignacourt Museum’s proudest moments. On this day, John Paul II blessed the Grotto and the statue of St Paul that was donated by Grand Master Pinto in 1748. He is also known to have asked to spend a few minutes alone in silence to pray where St Paul himself had once prayed. This visit is remembered at the Wignacourt by the series of pictures and plaques that adorn the chiselled walls that lead from the Wignacourt to the Grotto.



Although many people don’t know it, John Paul II actually visited Malta again just four months later, in September 1990, when he was en route to Africa. The visit was short however, and he never left the airport. The next time Pope John Paul II returned to Malta was 11 years later to beatify Dun Gorg Preca (now San Gorg Preca), Nazju Falzon and Sister Maria Adeodata Pisani. This, unfortunately, was Pope John Paul II’s final visit to the Maltese islands, as he passed away on 2 April 2005.

Pope John Paul II at St Paul's Grotto

Pope John Paul II at St Paul’s Grotto

His successor, Pope Benedict XIV would also make the journey to visit the holy site of St Paul’s Grotto. But that’s a story for another time.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the St Paul’s Grotto, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at

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


The Popes At the Wignacourt: Pope Alexander VII

As one of the holiest sites in Christian Europe, St Paul’s Grotto has attracted some truly noteworthy visitors, including the former Inquisitor of Malta turned Pope, Fabio Chigi.

By the 1600s, St Paul’s Grotto had become a renowned holy site in Christendom; its reputation cemented by the thousands of pilgrims flocking to it from all over Europe. But while many people nowadays know about Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s visits to the Grotto, few know that the Inquisitor of Malta Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII, had also visited this saintly place.

The Spanish Inquisition (source:

The Spanish Inquisition (source:

Having its roots in 12th-century France, the Inquisition was an ecclesiastical judicial system set up to rid Christendom of the Cathars, whose ideology clashed with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the Inquisition grew to become a universal force, which persecuted anyone who was deemed to be a heretic, including people who were believed to practice witchcraft and those whose allegiance was thought to be with the devil.

Malta – its roots deep in the Roman Catholic faith and feudalised to the Order of St John – was not spared the dark days of the Holy Inquisition and Fabio Chigi is one of the most infamous members of the Maltese branch of this Holy Office. In fact, as the Inquisitor of Malta, Chigi was one of the most powerful and respected men on the island, and his role at St Paul’s Grotto was more than that of a simple visitor.

Chigi was renowned for the Masses he celebrated in the Grotto, and many important people attended to hear his homilies – including a famous German mathematician and the librarian of the Vatican. Nevertheless, while according to documents and letters Chigi was very critical of the Grotto, in a letter addressed to his uncle dated 8th February 1636, Chigi also believed the Grotto to have medicinal properties.

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source:

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source:

In fact, Chigi often had very different ideas about the Grotto, such as a theory that the humidity which afflicted the place was not coincidental but rather the consequence of a well found underneath the Grotto. This, was later actually proven to be true.

After serving as the Inquisitor of Malta, Fabio Chigi went on to become Pope in 1655 and served as such until his death in 1667. It would be another 400 years before another Pope or Pope-to-be visited the holy site, and Chigi’s association with the Grotto definitely helped boost St Paul’s Grotto’s reputation.

Chigi’s role was so important on the Maltese isles that copies of an original portrait were created, one of which can still be seen at the Wignacourt. It has been part of the body of the original collection of artwork for centuries.

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

A History of the Wignacourt – Part III

The hand-over of St Paul’s Grotto from the Church to the State: This is the Wignacourt’s Story in the First Half of the 17th Century.

Although in Europe the end of the Middle Ages was marked by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, for the Grotto of St Paul, the Middle Ages ended around 1607 when Juan de Cordova Beneguas obtained permission to look after the crypt from Pope Paul V.  This one crucial move led to the separation of the church of St Paul in Rabat and the Crypt.

Pope John Paul II with the reliquary containing fragments of St Paul's arm.

Pope John Paul II with the reliquary containing fragments of St Paul’s arm.

On 17th October 1609, three figure carvings in gilded wood of the three saints that are most intertwined with the Grotto’s history (St Paul, St Luke and St Publius) were placed in the Grotto. From documents, we know that these figure carvings were commissioned by Beneguas during his time in Naples and were sculpted by Pietro Papaleo. This, apart from paying homage to these three saints, was a political move that cemented Beneguas’s role in the Crypt’s story.

According to Marcantonio Axak, who was a galley surgeon, by 21st January 1610 an underground chapel and three altars had been dug out near the Grotto – a feat that still brings visitors to awe. This information was written in his compilation entitled Relazione della Nuova e Grandissima Divotione Introdotta nella sta Grotta di San Paolo Nel’Isola di Malta (Rough Translation: The Rapport of the New and Great Devotion Introduced to this Grotto of St Paul on the Island of Malta).


The reliquary containing fragments from St Paul’s arm.

In 1615, just eight years after Beneguas had become the custodian of the Crypt, the newly appointed Bishop of Malta, Baldassare Cagliares, conducted a pastoral visit to the Grotto. This visit has given us ample descriptions of the Grotto prior to Beneguas’s heremitic retreat in it and bears testimony to how much it has changed since then.

By 1st February 1617, the Knights of St John were invested with jurisdictional rights over St Paul’s Cave, however, and within two-and-a-half months, Beneguas ceded the grotto and all its adjoining buildings and accessions to the Knights. Within a month – in a political move to establish the Knight’s power in Malta and internationally – the Cathedral Chapter of Mdina declared that the Grotto of St Paul in Rabat was ‘the foundation stone of the Church in Malta’.

Furthermore, the allure of the Grotto was increased when, in June 1621, a relic of bone fragments from the arm of St Paul was brought to St Paul’s Grotto in an impressive procession led by Grand Prior of the Order, and in which some of the highest authorities of the Order took part. The relic had been donated by Duke Ferdinand of Mantua to Beneguas just a year before, on 21st July 1620.

Over the next 20 years the Grotto flooded by pilgrims on an on-going basis and had become synonymous with the Catholic faith and the Order. For this reason, in 1646, Fra Girolamo Mamo employed Francesco Buonamici to rebuild and enlarge the convent on top of the Grotto and its quarters. This would be just the beginning of many renovations and construction works that have still not ceased.

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


A History of the Wignacourt – Part II

Establishing St Paul’s Grotto as a Holy Site: This is the Wignacourt’s story during the 16th century.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the moment St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, St Paul’s Grotto became a holy site to which pilgrims flocked. Then, in 1366, Father Ylarius, the then-Bishop of Malta, gifted the Roman ditch of the church, which surrounded the walls of the Roman city, to the honourable Bochius De Bocio, who was a citizen of Malta. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Although we don’t know much about what happened between 1366 and 1536, we know that, by the latter date, a church and two altars had been erected in the Grotto itself. From descriptions of the island by Jean Quentin d’Autun at around the same time, we also know that there was much devotion surrounding St Paul and the crypt, and that many pilgrimaged to this holy site.

In 1549, Mattel Surdu, the rector of San Pawlu di Fora and Archpriest of the Mdina Cathedral, is known to have complained that St Paul’s Grotto was being neglected and one can only imagine the damage inflicted on the site by the hundreds by pilgrims that visited it every year.

Pilgrimages continued, however, and six years later, in 1555, the upper parish Church of St Paul was rebuilt following the instructions given by Bishop Monseigneur Domenico Cubelles; but this church was much smaller than the one we see today.

DSCF0011On 24 May 1571, a court case was filed with regards to the trafficking of fake Grotto stones. Although in Malta such cases were rather rare, many were questioning not only the stones of the Grotto but also the holiness and true power of holy relics and holy sites, and authenticity became an imperative in this field.

Due to increase in the number of pilgrims visiting the site as well as the population of Rabat, Archpriest De Agatis decided to enlarge the parish church of Rabat in 1575. But the number of pilgrims visiting the site never dwindled and, by the late 1500, the Grotto had become an established holy site in Christendom; the Maltese version of the Glastonbury Abbey in England, the first Catholic church in Britain built by Joseph of Arimathea himself.

_DSC1425 (1)St Paul’s Grotto was considered so holy, in fact, that records dating between 1605-1617 show that some people travelled to Malta out of their devotion to St Paul and many pilgrims carried away chippings of the rock-cut cave. Few knew, however, that this would be just the beginning of this site’s story.

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

Death at the Wignacourt: Part II – Cosmana Navarra’s Death Mask

The New Year represents a time for renewal, but we should never forget those whose journey has ended.

Cosmana Navarra, born in in Rabat in the 17th century, was the fourth child of Dr Giovanni Cumbo and Cornelia Navarra, and one of the most important benefactors of the Rabat parish church. Her benevolence can still be felt and seen all around the town of Rabat, particularly at St Paul’s church and in the Wignacourt Museum’s collection.

Well esteemed during her life, this wealthy and business-savvy woman lived to the ripe age of 87 and died on 30 January 1687. She was buried in the small chapel within the Rabat parish church, dedicated to San Anton, but her death mask, created to immortalise her image, remains at the Wignacourt.

image (8) (2)

 Death masks were used in the Christian culture in the West from the 1400s onwards, and the process to create them was as interesting, and maybe as macabre, as the item itself. Plaster was applied to the deceased person’s face and, once dried, this said plaster would be used as a cast on which the actual death mask would be moulded. Navarra’s death mask is made from bronze and is on display on the first floor of the museum underneath her portrait and adjacent to the mould used to create it.

Death masks were signs of respect and were made to remind future generations – both of how the person had looked, as well as that they had lead an extraordinary life. Amongst the world’s collection of death masks there is one of Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, and while Cosmana Navarra’s story might have not been as intricate or influential in world politics, she has left an ever-lasting mark on the parish of Rabat.

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

Death at the Wignacourt: Part I – The Funerary Room

The Christmas season, with the winter solstice right at its heart, might signify a time for rebirth, but the circle of life still has to continue.

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A Detail from the catafalque

From rooms adorned with maps we know not to be true to life, to others with relics that many of us today might frown upon, the Wignacourt museum has many chambers dedicated to various artefacts that display a way of life that has now become somewhat obsolete. One such room is the Funerary Room, which draws on Maltese ecclesiastical traditions related to the passing away of people, and more importantly, their souls.

The main exhibit in this room is an 18th century Maltese catafalque, which is a decorated wooden framework that supported the coffin of a distinguished person during the funeral or while lying in state. In fact, the word ‘catafalque’ is derived from the Italian word ‘catafalco’, meaning ‘scaffolding’.

The Catafalque

The Catafalque

The catafalque at the Wignacourt has carvings of and relating to St Paul, Rabat’s patron saint, and this is because the catafalque was used during the funerals of clerics who had served at the Rabat parish church. The clerics, clad in their ecclesiastical vestments, would have been carried in procession from their residence to the church and later the graveyard in it.

Also in the Funerary Room, are a number of other artefacts related to death and the ceremonies associated with it, such as a 19th century portable wooden structure known in Maltese as ‘it-tubru’, which was used in churches to commemorate a deceased person during liturgical, funerary ceremonies. This would have been covered with a large, black piece of velvet, edged with gold braid and a fringe known as ‘faldrappa’.

Accompanying the ‘tubru’ and the catafalque, there would have been candle stands placed at each corner of these wooden creations. The Wignacourt has two 18th century examples of these in wrought iron, which are painted and gilded, and which have a hatchment decorated with either a coat of arms or a symbol of death.

The room also boasts 19 hand-painted hatchments, which form part of a larger collection conserved in the museum. Each of these displays the coat of arms of popes, bishops, noble families, or else paschal symbols or symbols relating to death.

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