Category Archives: Wignacourt’s Treasures

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.

 

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.

The Rabat Shroud

The Wignacourt Museum’s authentic replica of the Shroud of Turin.

The Rabat Shroud

To all and every person living at present or in the future We attest and in truth declare that on the fifteenth day of last May, when the Most Sacred Shroud in which the Most Sacred Body of Christ had been placed by Joseph of Arimathea (which without any doubt is kept in our Metropolitan Church in the Royal Chapel) was being shown to the large number of people frequenting the church in the presence of the King of the State of Savoy, the above drawn image herewith attached, was moved near the original Most Sacred Shroud and we made it touch it (i.e. the original) and We guarded it”.                                                                       -       Archbishop of Turin, Michael Beyamus, 1663.

As attested by the Archbishop of Turin in 1663, the Rabat Shroud is an original replica of the Shroud of Turin. Now in language that might be an oxymoron, but in Catholicism it’s a completely different story.

The Rabat Shroud, along with many others, was drawn or painted in painstaking detail to the original Shroud found in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin and then put against the said original.

The Shroud of Turin is special and unique because it shows the silhouette of a bearded man, which many believe to be Jesus Christ. As legend, or history, has it, Joseph of Arimathea enveloped the dead body of Christ in this shroud when He was taken off the cross.

Over the years, many have tried to dispute the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity, saying that it was a medieval forgery created to bring in pilgrims and their money; nevertheless, countless scientists and tests have proven that the shroud is indeed from ancient times, dating to around Jesus’s times. Whether the image is of Christ or not is mostly down to faith, however.

Authentic replicas of the Shroud of Turin are very popular with pilgrims, and there are tens of them all over the world, including one in Belgium and Argentina, two in France and Portugal, 13 in Spain, 19 in Italy and obviously one in Malta. Our very own authentic replica probably made its way to Malta and the Wignacourt Museum thanks to the great relations between the Knights of St John and the Savoy Royal Family, who were incredibly powerful at the time.

Measuring 293.5cm (115.6”) by 101cm (39.8”) in a frame that’s 7cm (2.8”) wide, the Shroud is not awe-inspiring due to its dimensions but because of what it represents. For centuries, its original has beckoned millions of pilgrims to go see it and bask in its holiness, and authentic replicas bring this closer to the people – which is why it’s held as one of the Wignacourt Museum’s most important treasures.

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

Pope Paul V’s Chasuble and Girdle

Among the Wignacourt’s priceless treasures are liturgical vestments belonging to the infamous Pope Paul V.

Camillo Borghese, who went on to become Pope Paul V, was born into a life of privilege and wealth. His family, the Borghesi of Siena, were a powerful, noble lineage that had close ties with the Vatican and, today, their direct descendants are still the Princes of Sulmona, Rossano, Nettuno and many other regions.

As the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Paul V was relatively controversial, particularly with the English. After the Gunpowder Treason Plot of 1605, which was an attempted assassination on King James I of England and VI of Scotland and his parliament, many believed Pope Paul V had had a part in it. In fact, to this very day, the effigy of Pope Paul V is set on fire every Bonfire Night (5th November) at the Lewes Bonfire celebrations.

The strange thing about Pope Paul V’s vestments being at the Wignacourt Museum is that he never physically visited Malta, yet the reason is behind it is relatively obvious. The Spanish hermit Fra Juan Beneguas de Cordova, who had settled on the island to promote St Paul’s Grotto as a central place for pilgrimage and the Pauline cult, was an intimate friend of the Pope’s and an avid collector of relics, reliquaries and liturgical items.

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For this reason, Fra Juan was sent Pope Paul V’s chasuble (1) bearing his personal coat-of-arms, a taffeta stole (2) and maniple (3), and a three-tassled girdle (4) showing symbols from the Passion of Christ, such as the cross, ladder, scourge and nails, as a sign of their friendship.

All these items can now be viewed at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, in a room dedicated to silver and vestments. Along with Pope Paul V’s vestments you can also see many beautifully embroidered liturgical vestments carrying the coat-of-arms of the Grand Masters, among others.

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

1: an ornate, sleeveless outer vestment

2: a scarf-like vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee

3: a vestment formally worn by priests, which hung from the left arm

4: usually a rope-like belt worn around the waist, but can also be a silk sash.

The Pictures of Alof de Wignacourt

We discover the power, prestige and opulence of the man who gave the Wignacourt Museum its name.

Alof de Wignacourt’s reputation as a protector of the faith, which stemmed from his deeds during the Great Siege of Malta, paved the way towards his becoming a Grand Master of the Order in 1601; and his popularity would indeed prove pivotal when, in 1617, the Spanish hermit Juan Beneguas Da Cardova handed over St Paul’s Grotto to the Order.

Wignacourt quickly saw the opportunity in having such an important location and used it to show off the Order’s, as well as his own, prestige and power. Within a few months he built a college for the Chaplains of the Order, whose sole job was to promote and look after the Grotto day and night. In fact, to this day, Alof de Wignacourt is still hailed as having been a central player in the promotion of the Pauline cult in Malta, and like many of his contemporaries’, his standing was translated onto canvas.

His most important portrait hangs at the Louvre in Paris and was painted by the most famous painter in Rome and Naples at the time, Caravaggio. Nevertheless the Wignacourt hosts two of Alof de Wignacourt’s most iconic pictures: one by Cassarino (1582-1637) and another by an unknown artist.

Alof de Wignacourt by Cassarino

The Cassarino, which is part of the Catania collection, is particularly interesting because of the three inscriptions that are found on it. The first is an anagram that reads ‘G NF DC’, which has also been found on several other paintings around the island and which most probably indicate the artist rather the collector. The second inscription reveals the age of the sitter – who was 70 at the time of creation – and the third records the commissioner of the piece, who was Fr Ludovicus Perrin Dubus.

It should be noted, however, that the Cassarino is not the official portrait commissioned by the first collegiate members of the Wignacourt Foundation. The official one is the piece by the unknown artist and is much larger in size.  This portrait still hangs majestically in the Chapter Hall at the Wignacourt together with the pictures of many other Grand Masters.

Alof de Wignacourt by Unknown

As a side note, when entering the Chapter Hall, one should also note the large, 17th-century portrait of Cosmana Navarra, the benefactress who constructed the present Rabat Parish church, holding the plan of the said church in her hand.

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

Reverence & Politics: St Paul’s Grotto

Close to the Wignacourt lies St Paul’s Grotto, one of Christianity’s most sacred locations.

St Paul's Grotto

As legend has it, when St Paul was travelling from Crete to Rome to be put on trial in front of Julius Ceasar, his ship wrecked just off the Maltese coast, and the series of events that followed his famous shipwreck have been hailed as probably the most crucial and altering to the island’s destiny.

Although St Paul was offered luxurious lodgings by the governor of Malta after he had healed the latter’s father, St Paul refused and chose to make this grotto his lodgings. From here he preached the word of God and gave Malta its Catholic religion. So strong was St Paul’s influence that governor Publius would later become Malta’s first bishop and a saint himself.

For this reason, the Grotto has become a sacred location to which many pilgrims and influential people venture. Amongst the most important, it visitors have included Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, Fabio Chigi (who would later become Pope Alexander VII) and Admiral Lord Nelson.

There was one visitor in particular, however, who turned the grotto into an international place of pilgrimage. In 1600, hermit Juan Beneguas Da Cardova moved to Malta from Spain and acquired the land just above the grotto. He used it as the base from where he promoted his devotion for St Paul, resulting in the establishment of the cult of St Paul. A mere 10 years later, the Rabat Parish Church officially handed over the Grotto to him, but by 1617 he passed it over into the care of Order of the Knights of St John who had had their eye on it, both for its religious significance as well as for its political implications.

The Grandmaster at the time, Alof De Wignacourt, saw it of vital importance to build a college on the land above for the Chapter of Canons of the Collegiate of the Grotto of St Paul, also known as the Chaplains of the Order. These Chaplains’ mission was to promote devotion towards St Paul and to take care of the Grotto day and night. This was pivotal to showcase the importance of the site and the power the Order commanded.

Apart from its intricate history and religious significance, the Grotto boasts a statue donated by Grand Master Pinto in 1748 and a silver vessel donated by the Order in 1960 to commemorate 1900 years since St Paul’s shipwreck.

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

History & Faith: Relics at the Wignacourt

Holy relics have long been a bone of contention in Christianity, but at the Wignacourt their role is very firmly set – in fact they are among our most treasured displays!

Back in the real days of superstition, when Europe was scarred by warfare, famine and disease, many turned to the divine and holy to find solace. Relics of saints were venerated and considered direct links to God, and many went on pilgrimages far and wide to see and touch these holy objects that were believed to heal and purify.

The Wignacourt’s collection of holy relics has its roots in Spanish hermit Fra Juan Beneguas de Cordova’s friendship with Pope Paul V and Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. These friendships played a crucial role in promoting St Paul’s Grotto internationally, and through this, relics and reliquaries (containers for holy relics) were supplied to the Grotto and the adjoining churches and chapels.

The reliquary of St Matthew the Evangelist

The reliquary of St Matthew the Evangelist

Today, the museum has eight reliquary busts, with one of the most important being that of St Matthew the Evangelist, which is a 17th century Neapolitan reliquary made of gilded and polychromed wood. This particular reliquary is immediately recognisable by its inscribed cartouche (which reads ‘S-MATTEO’). Although undoubtedly interpolated throughout its lifetime, particularly in the head and hands, as with most other reliquaries, its main importance comes from what it cradles.

The church of St Publius, found just on top of St Paul’s Grotto, also boasts a number of reliquary busts that fall under two specific stylistic groups. Most of these busts are in the Baroque style, meaning that they have dynamic poses and gestures; some others, however, are from the Gothic idiom, and have taller proportions and a more sophisticated elegance to them.

What is important to note is that some of the reliquaries found at the Wignacourt and St Publius’s church seem to be hosting relics that did not belong to the saint being represented, but these pieces of Christian history are incredibly valuable nonetheless as they outline the religious fervour of the Counter-Reformation period.

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

Reunited: Art Expert Prof Sciberras Talks Preti, His Legacy, and the Importance of the Exhibition in Turin.

The recent homecoming of a number of Mattia and Gregorio Preti’s paintings has landmarked the return of the Wignacourt’s enviable Preti collection in its entirety.

The paintings, which were in Turin for five months, formed part of the remarkable exhibition, Il Cavalier Calabrese Mattia Preti tra Caravaggio e Luca Giordano, which was set up to commemorate Mattia Preti’s 400th birthday.

Oriental Man by Gregorio Preti

 We caught up with Professor Keith Sciberras to ask him about the importance of Preti’s legacy to Malta and Maltese art, what makes the Wignacourt’s Pretis special, and just how momentous it was to have a number of the paintings from the Wignacourt’s collection exhibited in Turin.

Mattia Preti plunged Malta directly into the spirit of Baroque art. His manner was triumphant and monumental, and was particularly suited to the imagery required by the knights of Malta,” Professor Sciberras tells us. “The artist gathered around him a large bottega and dominated artistic production in Malta for four decades.  His style imprinted itself on the Maltese baroque tradition.

Mattia Preti

Preti’s pictures of St Peter in Tears and St Peter Blessing at the Wignacourt are wonderful examples of his mid-Maltese period easel works. The artist produced a number of single-figure saints in a close-up rendition typical of the Neapolitan tradition for both the religious and private market,” he continues.

 

Madonna of Sorrows by Mattia Preti

A small Mater Dolorosa, also by the artist and also found at the Wignacourt, is a rare example of his late period small-scale works. The Wignacourt Museum also houses two paintings, representing the Baptism of Christ and St Publius, on temporary loan display from private collections. They are recent additions to Preti’s oeuvre and were discovered in 2012.

The exhibition in Turin, held at the Reggia La Venaria, showcased 50 paintings by Preti and other major artists of the period. The inclusion of the paintings of the Baptism of Christ and St Publius served to introduce these works to art critics and to the general public. Their participation in the show reflects the Wignacourt Museum’s outreach,” he concludes.

Mattia Preti’s work, along with the work of many other artists and artisans, can be enjoyed at the museum and we invite all art enthusiasts, tourists and anyone else who might be interested to visit the Wignacourt.

For more information on the artworks or the museum you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com

The Wignacourt & Its Catacombs

Beneath the splendour of the Wignacourt in Rabat lies an underground necropolis just waiting to be explored – its catacombs.

St Paul’s Catacombs

Before the Silent City became known as Città Notabile, and even before it got its name Mdina, Melite’s boundaries stretched all the way to Wignacourt College. Later resized to its current dimensions by the Arabs, its citizens during the time of the Roman era buried their deceased outside the city’s walls, deep under the Earth’s surface.

The catacombs adjoining the Wignacourt date back to around 200AD and are part of the hypogea of a Roman necropolis that is truly a feat in terms of its architecture. When venturing down into these vaults of history, in fact, you can appreciate a myriad of differently-styled tombs, from the saddle-backed baldacchino tombs (which are basically a hole with an semi-circular opening) to through-less baldacchino tombs (similar to the baldacchino tombs but, this time, with two openings), to window tombs and small loculi (tombs which are traditionally considered Egyptian in style).

This underground cemetery, which was positioned outside the city’s walls because of hygienic reasons, also doubled as a place for mourners to conglomerate. It was also the place where rituals could be performed. At the end of the tunnels, in fact, there is an Agape table, which was used for ritual meals to celebrate those who had died.

Today, because of the many cases of looting over the centuries, not much remains of what used to be inside the catacombs, yet visitors can still happen across century-old bones. The awesomeness of these catacombs, however, does not come from their eeriness but rather from our forefathers’ attention to detail. Some window tombs, for example, still have the purposely-carved indentations in the rock – the spot where the deceased’s heads would have once lain.

Although centuries have passed, there is still a solemnness to these tombs that cannot quite be explained in words. Going slowly down the steps that separate our everyday life from this underworld that is almost two millennia old, you can’t help but feel engulfed by a world that is long-gone.

For more information on the catacombs, which form part of Heritage Malta’s St Paul’s Catacombs complex, and the Wignacourt Museum you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com

Mattia and Gregorio Preti’s Return

It is a joyful day for art lovers in Malta as two of Wignacourt’s most important pieces have returned home after a short stay in Turin.

Mattia Preti’s St Publius (ca. 1668-1669) and Oriental Man Holding a Pipe and a Glass of Wine (c. 1635-1640) by Mattia’s brother, Gregorio Preti, have now been returned to the Wignacourt after five months in Turin, where they formed part of the dazzling Il Cavalier Calabrese Mattia Preti tra Caravaggio e Luca Giordano. The exhibition, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and Keith Sciberras, was held between May and September of this year at La Venaria to honour the 400th anniversary of Mattia Preti’s birth.

The paintings, which are on loan from a private collector, has only recently been discovered and restored, and Il Cavalier Calabrese was their first exhibit outside of the Wignacourt. Both masterpieces were placed in the ‘Volti e Personaggi’ room, in which most of the artwork follows a typical format of a half-length figure depicted within a vertical canvas space.

Oriental Man by Gregorio Preti

Gregorio’s Oriental Man, rather than being an actual portrait, is a typecasting of the men found in the taverns of and around Rome back then, and a similar kind of figure is repeated in another work by Gregorio, Le Nozze di Cana (Rome, Palazzo Taverna di Montegiordano). The painting was created in a late-Caraveggesque manner, in which the chiaroscuro technique was used – the style uses light from the top left of the painting thus illuminating one side of the figure; contrasting the rest of the image.

St Publius by Mattia Preti

Mattia Preti’s depiction of St Publius, however, moves away from this technique, which had become quite popular at the time. Mattia used volto illuminato instead, which is a characteristic that he made use of during his first phase in Malta, to which St Publius dates back to. The same technique can be observed in his portrayal of saints at Sarria Church in Floriana.

Nevertheless, his true genius can be seen in the brush strokes of the drapery and the application of pigment – which are also traits of his early work in Malta. The absence of symbols in the painting, however, has made it very difficult to identify the saint. But the likeness to a depiction of St Publius by Preti at the Church of St Publius adjoining the Wignacourt has led many to believe it is another representation of the saint.

Both artworks are now on display at the Wignacourt along with Mattia Preti’s other work at the museum.

For more information on the artworks or the museum you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com