Monthly Archives: October 2013

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

Hey, That’s The Wignacourt’s Joke!

A new concept in comedy premieres to the general public this Thursday as Hey, That’s My Joke! are set to take the stage at the Wignacourt.

Hey, That's My Joke!

Over the summer, comedy nights at the Wignacourt became noteworthy events, and with Punch Fist Production’sHey, That’s My Joke! performing this Thursday, the tradition is set to continue into the winter. The troupe, made up of some of the best local talent, including Malcolm Galea, Philip Leone-Ganado, Joseph Zammit and Marie-Claire Pellegrini, will be premiering something completely new in comedy that hasn’t been seen or experienced anywhere before, apart from at their own closed-premier just a few weeks ago.

Hey, That's My Joke!

Hey, That’s My Joke! is a quirky twist on stand-up comedy with added elements of improvisational comedy, and surprisingly, it works really, really well,’ says David Chircop, Creative Director at Punch Fist Productions. “Basically, what happens is this: comedians start by performing a short comedy set, then, the audience chooses who they want to perform whose set, and the comedians have to perform each other’s set. They won’t ask any questions, they will just have to do whatever the audience asks.

Hey, That's My Joke!

“That’s where all the hilarity and carnage begins, and I tell you it is a riot. It’s quite special how well these two genres of comedy have managed to blend together, and the Wignacourt just makes it that much better,” continues David.

Hey, That's My Joke!“As a venue, the Wignacourt is quite special for us performers. It’s a new space for us to explore which is not only oozing with history and character, but it’s particularly versatile as well. No wonder it is building such an exquisite repertoire events on its calendar. We are truly excited to be among its ever-increasing number of acts and hope to be as special as the venue itself.”

Hey, That's My Joke!

Hey, That’s My Joke! will perform at the Wignacourt Wine Gardens on Thursday 24 October 2013 from 9pm onwards. Please call on 2749 4905 to book your table.

Antoine Favray at the Wignacourt

After the demise of Mattia Preti in 1699, Malta’s artistic scene was left barren, and it would take almost 50 years before anyone would be able to revive it to its formal glory._DSC0777 copy

Arriving in Malta in 1744, Chevalier Antoine de Favray (1706-c. 1792) played a crucial role in Maltese art, particularly because he was the only man who managed to fill the void left behind by Mattia Preti’s death.

He was quickly commissioned by the Order of the Knights of St John, and in 1871 he became a Serving Brother of the Order, even though he was not of noble blood. This made him the official painter of the Order, and it is for this reason that one of the most unlikely pairings in sainthood came to be.

The Wignacourt Museum’s painting of St John the Baptist and St Paul displays a very rare matching in art, as these two saints are not usually related in any way. To the Order, however, these two saints were incredibly important: St John, because he was their patron saint; and St Paul, because of the Grotto in Rabat which had fallen under their care.

This illustrious painting is now a prized article amongst the Wignacourt’s collection. Its composition displays Preti’s influence on Favray, but the use of chromatic reds and greens are typical of the artist, and show that this was probably painted at the later stage of Favray’s first period in Malta.

Another of his artworks on display at the Wignacourt is that of St Cathaldus (1760), which was originally produced for the small Baroque church dedicated to the saint just 50 metes away from the Grotto of St Paul.

Signed and dated by the artists, this piece showcases Favray’s talent. Due to his use of a dark background, a sharp contrast is created between this and the gold-embroidered and white vestments of the saint. This results in the saint having an illuminated aura and almost projecting out of the canvas.

St Cathaldus

Favray would live to a ripe old age of 86 and would work in two of the most influential cities ruled by two of the most powerful cultures of the era: Rome and Constantinople. His work is truly superior and only when being face-to-face with one of his works can you truly appreciate his craftsmanship.

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

The Wignacourt’s Shelters of War

Deep beneath the Roman catacombs lies a war shelter from World War II, and each inch of its pickaxed walls tells a story of survival. 

When World War II broke out, numerous war shelters were dug all over Malta, providing safety and protection to thousands of civilians. One of these shelters is located just below the Wignacourt’s adjoining catacombs, and consists of around 50 rooms.

What visitors will notice is that each of the 50 rooms found in the shelters is unique and numbered. This is because the government at the time was only responsible for providing the main corridors of the shelters in Rabat, and families had to then pay to have their own room dug within them.

The Wignacourt's War Shelters

Because the shelters are located right beneath the catacombs, the rubble that was removed from the shelters while they were being excavated was purposely put into the catacombs to provide cushioning from dropping bombs. This was crucial to ensure that the hollow catacombs did not give way and bury the people who had sought protection in the shelters below.

Families tried hard to adapt to their new living conditions, in fact, and those who could afford to laid down tiles, installed doors, and even had electricity connected. Nevertheless, money and supplies were very scarce and many rooms were relatively bare and basic, with oil lamps being the most popular way to illuminate and add warmth.

Thankfully, Rabat and Mdina were not heavily bombarded during the war and, although sirens would still go off periodically forcing the populace of the area to take refuge, these usually turned out to be an act of precaution. What the shelters prove, however, is that apart from physical protection, this series of underground tunnels also offered a sense of security and homeliness that must have heartened people during those trying times.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the adjoining war shelters, 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