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