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.
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).
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.
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