A History of the Wignacourt – Part I

From St Paul’s Shipwreck to the Middle-Ages, this is how the Wignacourt’s story began.

Wignacourt 8 

The Wignacourt Collegiate Museum in Rabat is not just a place where you can go to see art and historical artefacts, but a conglomeration of spaces that, together, tell a story that started almost 2000 years ago.

The oldest part of the museum is St Paul’s Grotto, which is located underneath the museum. The grotto was made famous and named after Malta’s patron saint: Paul the Apostle, and the story of how St Paul ended up lodging there has been integrated into Malta’s popular history and folklore.

A native of Tarsus, Cilicia (located in the southern part of modern-day Turkey), St Paul was both a Jew as well as a Roman, and spent years persecuting early Christians. Then, while on his way to Damascus, Paul saw a blinding light and communicated directly with a divine voice, which many assume to be God’s (this is also where the phrase ‘road to Damascus,’ was coined and is used to describe how someone had a sudden turning point in their life). This event was so life altering for Paul, in fact, that he converted instantaneously, and spent the rest of his years evangelizing pagans to the new faith.

St Paul's Grotto

In time, many Jews felt that he was undermining their religion because his teachings promoted the forsakenment of Moses and cessation of circumcision. This led to Paul’s incarceration, attempted assassination and finally, when he was captured, his prosecution in front of Caesar, and it was on his way to be tried in Rome in 60AD that St Paul’s shipwreck took place.

During his time in Malta, St Paul preached the word of God incessantly and even performed some inexplicable miracles, including the healing of governor Publius’s father. As an act of gratitude, Publius offered St Paul lodging in his own villa, but St Paul refused and, according to tradition, it is believed that he lived out his days in Malta in this particular grotto.

When he left Malta, he appointed Publius as leader of the faith, and consequentially Publius would go on to become Malta’s first bishop and saint. The people of Malta had a great love for this site and embraced the new religion. A complex maze of catacombs was dug out next to the grotto and archaeological findings have proven that St Paul’s Grotto has been a place for veneration ever since.

The first major event to happen around this place after the shipwreck of St Paul was in 1366, when Father Ylarius, the then-Bishop of Malta, gifted the ditch of the church and St Paul’s Grotto to Bochius de Bochio, a citizen of Malta. From then on, the story of St Paul’s Grotto and all the buildings adjoined to it, took a completely different turn.

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.