Category Archives: The Wignacourt Museum and Adjoining Complexes

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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com

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: http://romeartlover.tripod.com/Malta16.html)

The Coat of Arms of Grandmaster Carafa on the façade of Auberge D’Italie, Valletta. (Source: http://romeartlover.tripod.com/Malta16.html)

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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

 

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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

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.

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 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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

Christmas at the Wignacourt

As the festive season comes to a climax, the Wignacourt Christmas Market will mark one fantastic year since the museum reopened its doors.

Xmas

 

On 12 December, the Wignacourt marked the first anniversary since it reopened its doors to the public following extensive renovation to the premises, as well as the acquisition of many new artefacts and artworks.

Now, come Saturday 21 December, the team is organising a Christmas market to celebrate this achievement with the museum’s benefactors, clients and friends.

wignacourtxmasOpening at 10am and closing at 3pm, the Christmas market’s stalls will be jam-packed with local and artisan products, including Saz Mifsud and her stunning scarves, Kumpanija Kartolini’s hand-made cards, the opulent Nadège Renée jewellery, Modiste – By Tina’s crafty bags, Monstri Boo’s cheeky accessories and Debbie’s Café’s delicious treats.

On the day, the Wignacourt Collegiate Museum and Café will be open for business as usual, and both entities will be collecting money for FACES, a charitable organisation that helps children in Africa. Also, to help get all the visitors into the Christmas spirit, there will also be carollers present, singing popular seasonal tunes, and much more.

So, come join us this Saturday and let’s make the most of the Christmas season!

For more information on you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or e-mail us at info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

The Pellegrini Petit Chapels

Nostalgia and Patrimony: These are George Pellegrini Petit’s models of wayside chapels and the story of how they came to be.

George Pellegrini Petit

George Pellegrini Petit

When George Pellegrini Petit (1924-2012) drove past St Peter’s chapel, located between Zejtun and Marsaxlokk, he was so overcome by a feeling of nostalgia that he decided to create a model of it. This model would not be architecturally accurate, as he worked on images taken with a camera, but using a miscellany of cork, cardboard, wood and slivers of tin – with many long hours and much dedication – he manipulated and formed the chapels into shape.

Pellegrini Petit believed that the 300-or-so chapels peppered across the islands of Malta and Gozo are a testimony to Maltese patrimony and heritage and, over the years, he would go on to create a grand total of 50 models of wayside chapels from various localities, including Naxxar, Qormi and Haz-Zebbug. Each of these 50 chapels has a history of its own, and tells a story of reverence and sacrifice.

One of the models is that of the chapel of Il-Madonna ta’ Loreto which is situated very close to the airport in Gudja. It was built in 1548 by Knight Imbert de Morines, Prior of Alverna, in thanksgiving for a victory against the Ottomans. Due to its connotations with triumph over evil and God’s benevolence, the chapel soon became a centre for devotion, to the extent that two loggias were erected to shelter the visiting pilgrims.

This, to Pellegrini Petit, was an important part of our legacy as a nation and sought to safeguard it, if only in a model of the actual place. He also strived to show off Malta’s architectural legacy, and was often heard saying that the building industry in Malta had become ‘grotesque asphalt junk’.

In 2000, the Wignacourt Museum exhibited all 50 of these chapels, with around 30 of them being donated to form part of the museum’s permanent collection.  Now, 13 years later, George Pellegrini Petit’s portrait by Luciano Micallef has been gifted to the museum by his daughter, and it is currently in the same room as the wayside chapels.

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

Did You Like the Wignacourt Museum?

We spent a day touring the Wignacourt and mingling with visitors. We asked them what they liked, what surprised them and whether they’d come again. Here are our three favourites. 

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“It was the World War II shelters that did it for us, because you don’t quite realise what the Maltese had to go through to protect their families. Also, together with the artefacts, the paintings, and the chapel, we think the Wignacourt gives you a good overview of the island’s history in a nutshell! We’ll definitely come again.” – Tony and Sue Sheen, England.

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“We had never been anywhere like the catacombs! They offer fascinating insight into the lives of yesteryear’s people. We have to admit that we were very pleasantly surprised and we can’t wait to see what the rest of the museum has to offer!” – Stuart and Emma McDonald, England.

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“We love it!” – A group of Swiss visiting with one of the local tour providers.

Have you been to the Wignacourt? What did you think of it? Please leave a comment on our Facebook page!

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

 

 

 

A History of the Wignacourt – Part I

From St Paul’s Shipwreck to the Middle-Ages, this is how the Wignacourt’s story began.

Wignacourt 8 

The Wignacourt Collegiate Museum in Rabat is not just a place where you can go to see art and historical artefacts, but a conglomeration of spaces that, together, tell a story that started almost 2000 years ago.

The oldest part of the museum is St Paul’s Grotto, which is located underneath the museum. The grotto was made famous and named after Malta’s patron saint: Paul the Apostle, and the story of how St Paul ended up lodging there has been integrated into Malta’s popular history and folklore.

A native of Tarsus, Cilicia (located in the southern part of modern-day Turkey), St Paul was both a Jew as well as a Roman, and spent years persecuting early Christians. Then, while on his way to Damascus, Paul saw a blinding light and communicated directly with a divine voice, which many assume to be God’s (this is also where the phrase ‘road to Damascus,’ was coined and is used to describe how someone had a sudden turning point in their life). This event was so life altering for Paul, in fact, that he converted instantaneously, and spent the rest of his years evangelizing pagans to the new faith.

St Paul's Grotto

In time, many Jews felt that he was undermining their religion because his teachings promoted the forsakenment of Moses and cessation of circumcision. This led to Paul’s incarceration, attempted assassination and finally, when he was captured, his prosecution in front of Caesar, and it was on his way to be tried in Rome in 60AD that St Paul’s shipwreck took place.

During his time in Malta, St Paul preached the word of God incessantly and even performed some inexplicable miracles, including the healing of governor Publius’s father. As an act of gratitude, Publius offered St Paul lodging in his own villa, but St Paul refused and, according to tradition, it is believed that he lived out his days in Malta in this particular grotto.

When he left Malta, he appointed Publius as leader of the faith, and consequentially Publius would go on to become Malta’s first bishop and saint. The people of Malta had a great love for this site and embraced the new religion. A complex maze of catacombs was dug out next to the grotto and archaeological findings have proven that St Paul’s Grotto has been a place for veneration ever since.

The first major event to happen around this place after the shipwreck of St Paul was in 1366, when Father Ylarius, the then-Bishop of Malta, gifted the ditch of the church and St Paul’s Grotto to Bochius de Bochio, a citizen of Malta. From then on, the story of St Paul’s Grotto and all the buildings adjoined to it, took a completely different turn.

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

 

The Treasurer’s Room

Deep within the Wignacourt there is a room built with the purpose of holding a treasure. And, hundreds of years later, it still retains its original features. 

The Treasurer's Room

The Wignacourt Museum in Rabat is a maze of rooms and vaults that have been used for various things over the centuries, including as a place of residence for the Order of the Chaplains, as well as a school. But one particular room is still the same now as it was when it was first built. This is the Treasurer’s Room, located next to the chapel that now houses the reliquary collection.

When the collegiate was turned into a school after World War II, many of the rooms were renovated to accommodate students, but both the Treasurer’s Room and the Chapel of Reliquaries were left untouched. Coincidentally, both of these rooms are rather similar in structure, but the Treasurer’s Room, due to the function it was built for, is slightly different.

Just like the Chapel of Reliquaries, this room opens up to the study area and is divided into three sections, but the arched entrance that leads to the bed in the Treasurer’s Room is much narrower than that in the Reliquary Chapel. This was done with the intent of both warding off thieves as well as forcing them to pass over the bed if they wanted to get to the valuables.

The original wooden treasure chest, which used to encase both silverware and money, is still stored in its original location – on a loft above the bed, set in an alcove. The room also boasts an early example of an en-suite, with an adjoining washroom that allowed the treasurer to keep an eye on the treasure chest at all times.

True to its original purpose, this is the only room at the Wignacourt Museum that has been set up as a bedroom. It also boasts a beautifully-restored 18th century headboard hanging, right where the treasurer’s bed would have been placed hundreds of years ago. This elaborate bedstead, crafted out of wood, holds an image of the Immaculate Conception painted in oils and is surmounted by a crown and enhanced by festoons, scrolls and other decorative details. This image of Immaculate Conception, depicted as standing over a crescent moon crushing a snake, was a common image to have in bedrooms during the period.

Today, the room also plays host to part of the Wignacourt Museum’s collection, with the most important item being the copper bath in the en-suite. This bath is one of the oldest of its kind in Malta, dating back to the 18th century, and it is a faithful representation of the bath the treasurer of the Chaplaincy would have used. On top of that, there are also a number of ex-voto paintings from the filial churches of St Cathaldus and Ta’ Duna, which are both located in Rabat. 

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