Tag Archives: The Roman Period

Reverence & Politics: St Paul’s Grotto

Close to the Wignacourt lies St Paul’s Grotto, one of Christianity’s most sacred locations.

St Paul's Grotto

As legend has it, when St Paul was travelling from Crete to Rome to be put on trial in front of Julius Ceasar, his ship wrecked just off the Maltese coast, and the series of events that followed his famous shipwreck have been hailed as probably the most crucial and altering to the island’s destiny.

Although St Paul was offered luxurious lodgings by the governor of Malta after he had healed the latter’s father, St Paul refused and chose to make this grotto his lodgings. From here he preached the word of God and gave Malta its Catholic religion. So strong was St Paul’s influence that governor Publius would later become Malta’s first bishop and a saint himself.

For this reason, the Grotto has become a sacred location to which many pilgrims and influential people venture. Amongst the most important, it visitors have included Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, Fabio Chigi (who would later become Pope Alexander VII) and Admiral Lord Nelson.

There was one visitor in particular, however, who turned the grotto into an international place of pilgrimage. In 1600, hermit Juan Beneguas Da Cardova moved to Malta from Spain and acquired the land just above the grotto. He used it as the base from where he promoted his devotion for St Paul, resulting in the establishment of the cult of St Paul. A mere 10 years later, the Rabat Parish Church officially handed over the Grotto to him, but by 1617 he passed it over into the care of Order of the Knights of St John who had had their eye on it, both for its religious significance as well as for its political implications.

The Grandmaster at the time, Alof De Wignacourt, saw it of vital importance to build a college on the land above for the Chapter of Canons of the Collegiate of the Grotto of St Paul, also known as the Chaplains of the Order. These Chaplains’ mission was to promote devotion towards St Paul and to take care of the Grotto day and night. This was pivotal to showcase the importance of the site and the power the Order commanded.

Apart from its intricate history and religious significance, the Grotto boasts a statue donated by Grand Master Pinto in 1748 and a silver vessel donated by the Order in 1960 to commemorate 1900 years since St Paul’s shipwreck.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and the St Paul’s Grotto, you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com

The Wignacourt & Its Catacombs

Beneath the splendour of the Wignacourt in Rabat lies an underground necropolis just waiting to be explored – its catacombs.

St Paul’s Catacombs

Before the Silent City became known as Città Notabile, and even before it got its name Mdina, Melite’s boundaries stretched all the way to Wignacourt College. Later resized to its current dimensions by the Arabs, its citizens during the time of the Roman era buried their deceased outside the city’s walls, deep under the Earth’s surface.

The catacombs adjoining the Wignacourt date back to around 200AD and are part of the hypogea of a Roman necropolis that is truly a feat in terms of its architecture. When venturing down into these vaults of history, in fact, you can appreciate a myriad of differently-styled tombs, from the saddle-backed baldacchino tombs (which are basically a hole with an semi-circular opening) to through-less baldacchino tombs (similar to the baldacchino tombs but, this time, with two openings), to window tombs and small loculi (tombs which are traditionally considered Egyptian in style).

This underground cemetery, which was positioned outside the city’s walls because of hygienic reasons, also doubled as a place for mourners to conglomerate. It was also the place where rituals could be performed. At the end of the tunnels, in fact, there is an Agape table, which was used for ritual meals to celebrate those who had died.

Today, because of the many cases of looting over the centuries, not much remains of what used to be inside the catacombs, yet visitors can still happen across century-old bones. The awesomeness of these catacombs, however, does not come from their eeriness but rather from our forefathers’ attention to detail. Some window tombs, for example, still have the purposely-carved indentations in the rock – the spot where the deceased’s heads would have once lain.

Although centuries have passed, there is still a solemnness to these tombs that cannot quite be explained in words. Going slowly down the steps that separate our everyday life from this underworld that is almost two millennia old, you can’t help but feel engulfed by a world that is long-gone.

For more information on the catacombs, which form part of Heritage Malta’s St Paul’s Catacombs complex, and the Wignacourt Museum you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com