Monthly Archives: January 2014

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

What Defines Baroque?

‘Baroque’ is a word that often gets thrown around, but what does it mean and what defines it as such?

Romanesque, gothic, neoclassical and postmodern: many words have been coined to describe and allude to different styles of architecture, painting, sculpture and music. What differentiates between these terms is a simple train of thought that was ubiquitous in the era during which that particular style was in vogue. The term ‘baroque’, for example, relates to the style of European architecture and art of the 17th and 18th centuries – and in a nutshell, it was all about extravagance, luxury and excess.

© Bildagentur Huber / Hans-Peter Huber

The Palace of Versailles
© Bildagentur Huber / Hans-Peter Huber

What we must understand about the baroque is that it followed the Renaissance, which had completely dismantled the architecture, social frameworks and, more importantly, the beliefs of the Dark Ages. One of the prime examples of baroque architecture is the palace of Versailles in France, which is adorned with gold, glass, mirrors, crystal and paintings. Everything about this extraordinary palace points to three logical and obvious truths: King Louis XIV was rich, he had great taste, and he didn’t see his vanity as sin.

In Malta, the baroque period enjoyed its heyday under the Knights of St John, and can be particularly seen and experienced within the walls of the city of Valletta. Although the city’s motto is ‘Città Umilissima’ (Latin for: a humble city), the architecture of Valletta also has elements of another rich style. The Mannerist style was a 16th-century Italian art form that was characterised by distortions in scale and perspective, as well as by the use of bright and lurid colours. This, in more ways than one, was the precursor of the baroque style.

Some of Valletta’s, and consequentially Malta’s, most precious treasures are from this era, in fact. Caravaggio was active during the early baroque period, and the Beheading of St John is the epitome of baroque art. St John’s Co-Cathedral’s famous interiors were also created during the baroque period and now stand testimony to the wealth and taste of both the Order as well as the Church at the time.

The Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, although much humbler than St John’s Co-Cathedral and Versailles, also has baroque elements.  Features from this period in artistic and architectural history can be seen in both its stonework and also in many of the paintings on display, particularly those by Mattia Preti who was one of the most famous painters active in Malta during that period.

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


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

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.

image (8) (2)

 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