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.
On 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.