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.