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A History of the Wignacourt – Part II

Establishing St Paul’s Grotto as a Holy Site: This is the Wignacourt’s story during the 16th century.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

DSCF0011On 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.

_DSC1425 (1)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 info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

A History of the Wignacourt – Part I

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

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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.