Since 60AD, St Paul’s shipwreck has had a lasting effect, and from the episode being mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles to Roman Catholicism being included in Malta’s constitution, that one shipwreck changed not only Malta’s destiny but also its skyline.
As the story goes, St Paul performed several miracles while in Malta, with one of the most well known being the healing of the then-Roman governor’s father. That same governor would go on to become a follower of St Paul’s, Malta’s first bishop (consecrated by St Paul himself) and a saint in his own right; and disguised behind the façade of the Rabat parish church, is a second edifice paying tribute him.
The Sanctuary of St Publius was added to Rabat’s parish church in 1617, and was under the care of the Knights of the Order of St John. Evidence of the Order’s role in this sanctuary’s care can be found everywhere, particularly on the sides of the sanctuary decorated by eight-pointed crosses.
The current adjoining and connecting parish dates to the 17th century and was built thanks to the generosity of Comana Navarra, whose portrait can be seen at the Wignacourt Museum. The church, which is dedicated to St Paul, shares a façade with the sanctuary and some believe that architect Francesco Buonamici did this to alleviate the rivalry between the Church and the Order by giving both buildings’ entrances the same importance. This, however, often leads many to believe that there is only one church behind the baroque façade.
St Publius’s Sanctuary is richly decorated and hosts numerous works by some of the best artists creating under the Order’s rule. These include a titular painting by Mattia Preti, showing the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and St Publius. This painting is particularly interesting as Baby Jesus can be seen holding an eight-pointed cross, inferring that the Order was under God’s divine protection.
A further two lateral paintings in the main apse show St Publius preaching and the saint’s martyrdom during the persecution of Emperor Hadrian. In the main aisle there are also four canvases reflecting the sanctuary’s dedication and history. Two of these four canvases depict the baptism of Publius and his consecration as bishop of Malta; while the other two are portraits of Alof de Wignacourt and Pope Paul V.
The Last Supper of Christ, by Francesco Zahra, is also worthy of mention and can be found in the small chapel dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament to the right of the main altar built in 1753. This chapel’s rich stonework is also an artwork in itself and, along with that of the Sanctuary as a whole, surely deserves a visit.
For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the St Publius’s Sanctuary, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.