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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


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

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

Stalko and the Curated Tour

stalko logs2 (by Julian Vassallo)

Intimate, interactive and unique: take a curated tour of the Wignacourt Museum to the sound of Stalko.

Now in its third week, the Summer Under The Stars series of culture and music at the Wignacourt continues with Maltese indie music played in our historic surroundings. With the help of Frederica Agius, Stalko has “turned this gig into a combination of musical performance and a curated tour of the museum, the war shelters and the catacombs,” says Michael Stivala, one of the band’s talented performers.

Stalko (by Denise Scicluna)

“We’re going to spend the evening moving through a number of the rooms on a tour interspersed with music. Some of the locations, especially the underground war shelters and catacombs, will make for a wonderful, intimate environment for a gig.”

The band is also known for its great choice of venues and they are very excited about gigging at the Wignacourt, particularly due to its wealth of history, which, as Michael adds, they “hope to explore and further expose.”

Photo by Chris Vella

Stalko will perform at the Wignacourt and the adjoining war shelters and catacombs on Thursday 5 September and Thursday 19 September 2013 from 9pm onwards. The gig on the 5th is already sold out but please do call on 2749 4905 to book your place for the 19th

Melchiorre Cafà’s Statue of St Paul

Mechiorre Cafà’s Statue of St Paul


St Paul’s Grotto adjoining the Wignacourt in Rabat is one of Malta’s most sacred locations. As legend has it, the grotto was St Paul’s chosen lodgings after he rejected the lush quarters offered to him by the governor of Malta subsequent to healing the governor’s father. Since time in memoriam, the location has had many devotees, including every pontiff that has ever visited the islands.

Inside this holy spot, there is also an artistic treasure few know the value of: a statue of St Paul by a man whose talents skyrocketed him to become Rome’s most sought-after sculptor following the death of Gianlorenzo Bernini; we are, of course, talking about none other than Birgu-born Melchiorre Cafà.

The statue, probably commissioned by Grand Master Cotoner to replace a wooden one that had been brought to Malta by Spanish hermit Juan Benegas, was never finished by Cafà though, as the artist died a very tragic death in 1667 when some material collapsed on him while working on Saint Peter’s foundry for St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The suddenness of it all left many-an-artwork unfinished, including the statue of St Paul.

The statue was later completed by the bottega of Ercole Ferrata, where Cafà had trained in his early years as a sculptor. His other commissions for the Grotto, including a roundel for the altar and a statue of St Luke for the adjacent chapel, were never started. St Luke’s statue, however, was later produced by Pietro Papaleo and can now be admired at the Museum of Fine Arts in Vallettta.

Albeit finished by others, the statue of St Paul is indubitably a Cafà creation, particularly in its illusion of movement through its use of the asymmetrical pose and the ‘rising’ flow in drapery – a very typical trait of Baroque sculpture. Anyone remotely familiar with Baroque sculpture, in fact, will see these traits in other Baroque masterpieces, including the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini.

As mentioned before, the original statue can still be viewed at St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat as part of the Wignacourt, and should definitely be on everyone’s art-related bucket list.

NAFRA to Serenade at the Wignacourt.

NAFRA logo

History and tradition meet modernity as NAFRA are set to perform at the Wignacourt.

Following last Thursday’s stupendous turnout and great performances by the Wembley Store Boys as part of Wignacourt’s Summer Under The Stars series of culture and music, popular band NAFRA shall be taking the stage this coming Thursday.

“NAFRA will perform in its trio formation with Yuri Chariguine on the accordion, Luke Baldacchino on the percussion and myself on some traditional Maltese folk instruments, including iż-Żaqq (bagpipes), iż-Żummara (reed pipe) and Flejguta (cane flute),” says Ruben Zahra – the third performer and NAFRA’s general manager.

NAFRA - Elba 2010 - photo by Francesco Martinelli 03

“I think that the Wignacourt is developing a unique cultural programme within a unique heritage site. Concerts, recitals, theatre performances and other cultural events are a wonderful way of experiencing a historical venue as the backdrop to a performance, and, in fact, on Thursday the audience will be able to experience the authentic sound of traditional Maltese instruments within both folk and modern musical arrangements,” he adds.NAFRA Ruben Zahra playing iz-Zaqq 1

NAFRA’s programme for the night can be viewed here: NAFRA programme – Wignacourt Café

NAFRA will perform at the Wignacourt Wine Gardens on Thursday 29 August 2013 from 9pm. Please call on 2749 4905 to book your table.

Mattia Preti Masterpieces at the Wignacourt

The legacy left behind by the Knights of St John (1530-1798) is rich on many different levels, and comprises architectural, military and artistic treasures. Artistically, one of the names that always stands out from the Knights’ period in Malta is definitely that of Mattia Preti (1613-1699), a High-Baroque artist whose contribution remains unchallenged to this very day.

Moving to Malta in 1659 subsequent to being made a Knight of Grace in the Order, Preti created some of the most iconic art the Maltese Islands host, including the phenomenal ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral. Now some of the Wignacourt’s prime treasures include artworks left behind by Preti during his 40 years in Malta, and many are representative of the style he adopted later on in his life.

Mattia Preti

The dynamism and brilliance that were staple in his early works were put aside to focus more on the expression of the figures being represented. In both Penitent Peter (NA) and the St Peter in Pontifical Robes (ca. 1690), for example, Preti left the imprimatura or middle ground visible. Onto this he later added the darker tones and highlights which give the figures’ expression of remorse and absolution life – in other words, his technique gave previously heavy and robust figures a more corporal weight.

Mattia Preti

Another of Preti’s artworks housed at Wignacourt is the very atypical Madonna of Sorrows (NA). Apart from the fact that it was painted on a wood panel, which is very unusual for a Preti, the work is also rather small when compared to most of his pieces. This has led many to believe that Preti painted the Madonna for himself and needed it to be smaller so he could carry it around with him. Her expression, just like those of Penitent Peter’s and St Peter in Pontifical Robes’s, however, is the main focus point of the artwork as it draws the viewer in to feel the passion and the grief she is supposed to be experiencing.

Madonna of Sorrows

 Preti’s main talent, in fact, was more than that of an artist, because like other great artists’ his art makes people feel, think and indulge – and not everyone who can paint can do that. So if you want to see Mattia Preti’s work in all their glory, pop by to the Wignacourt in Rabat to revel in some of Malta’s most beautiful masterpieces.

Welcome to the Wignacourt Blog – a celebration of culture, community and history in Malta.


From the first migrants who claimed this land as their home, to its 2004 accession into the EU, Malta’s rich history is only paralleled by the artistic legacy of its people. Our islands are alive with a love for culture and we believe in sharing that passion with readers from around the world.

On this blog, run by the Wignacourt Centre, we shall be looking at the marvellous artefacts and splendid history of the baroque residence of the Chaplains of the Knights of Malta in Rabat – the Wignacourt’s stunning home. We will also be unravelling the incredible tales behind the adjoining Christian shrine of St Paul’s Grotto, which attracts thousands of people every year.

Run by culture lovers, and with input from historic experts from across the world, this blog will be delving deep into the convoluted pasts of our most famous artists. It will be looking for the inspiration behind our treasured artefacts and exploring the tangled history of our beloved island. It will also bring fascinating cultural and social news to the fore, while vivaciously celebrating the many brilliant people who are part of the Wignacourt, as well as of our extended community in Rabat, Malta, and beyond.

We hope you enjoy exploring the articles here, and we look forward to welcoming you to the Wignacourt in the future!