Tag Archives: treasures of the museum

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.

Death at the Wignacourt: Part I – The Funerary Room

The Christmas season, with the winter solstice right at its heart, might signify a time for rebirth, but the circle of life still has to continue.

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A Detail from the catafalque

From rooms adorned with maps we know not to be true to life, to others with relics that many of us today might frown upon, the Wignacourt museum has many chambers dedicated to various artefacts that display a way of life that has now become somewhat obsolete. One such room is the Funerary Room, which draws on Maltese ecclesiastical traditions related to the passing away of people, and more importantly, their souls.

The main exhibit in this room is an 18th century Maltese catafalque, which is a decorated wooden framework that supported the coffin of a distinguished person during the funeral or while lying in state. In fact, the word ‘catafalque’ is derived from the Italian word ‘catafalco’, meaning ‘scaffolding’.

The Catafalque

The Catafalque

The catafalque at the Wignacourt has carvings of and relating to St Paul, Rabat’s patron saint, and this is because the catafalque was used during the funerals of clerics who had served at the Rabat parish church. The clerics, clad in their ecclesiastical vestments, would have been carried in procession from their residence to the church and later the graveyard in it.

Also in the Funerary Room, are a number of other artefacts related to death and the ceremonies associated with it, such as a 19th century portable wooden structure known in Maltese as ‘it-tubru’, which was used in churches to commemorate a deceased person during liturgical, funerary ceremonies. This would have been covered with a large, black piece of velvet, edged with gold braid and a fringe known as ‘faldrappa’.

Accompanying the ‘tubru’ and the catafalque, there would have been candle stands placed at each corner of these wooden creations. The Wignacourt has two 18th century examples of these in wrought iron, which are painted and gilded, and which have a hatchment decorated with either a coat of arms or a symbol of death.

The room also boasts 19 hand-painted hatchments, which form part of a larger collection conserved in the museum. Each of these displays the coat of arms of popes, bishops, noble families, or else paschal symbols or symbols relating to death.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

The Pellegrini Petit Chapels

Nostalgia and Patrimony: These are George Pellegrini Petit’s models of wayside chapels and the story of how they came to be.

George Pellegrini Petit

George Pellegrini Petit

When George Pellegrini Petit (1924-2012) drove past St Peter’s chapel, located between Zejtun and Marsaxlokk, he was so overcome by a feeling of nostalgia that he decided to create a model of it. This model would not be architecturally accurate, as he worked on images taken with a camera, but using a miscellany of cork, cardboard, wood and slivers of tin – with many long hours and much dedication – he manipulated and formed the chapels into shape.

Pellegrini Petit believed that the 300-or-so chapels peppered across the islands of Malta and Gozo are a testimony to Maltese patrimony and heritage and, over the years, he would go on to create a grand total of 50 models of wayside chapels from various localities, including Naxxar, Qormi and Haz-Zebbug. Each of these 50 chapels has a history of its own, and tells a story of reverence and sacrifice.

One of the models is that of the chapel of Il-Madonna ta’ Loreto which is situated very close to the airport in Gudja. It was built in 1548 by Knight Imbert de Morines, Prior of Alverna, in thanksgiving for a victory against the Ottomans. Due to its connotations with triumph over evil and God’s benevolence, the chapel soon became a centre for devotion, to the extent that two loggias were erected to shelter the visiting pilgrims.

This, to Pellegrini Petit, was an important part of our legacy as a nation and sought to safeguard it, if only in a model of the actual place. He also strived to show off Malta’s architectural legacy, and was often heard saying that the building industry in Malta had become ‘grotesque asphalt junk’.

In 2000, the Wignacourt Museum exhibited all 50 of these chapels, with around 30 of them being donated to form part of the museum’s permanent collection.  Now, 13 years later, George Pellegrini Petit’s portrait by Luciano Micallef has been gifted to the museum by his daughter, and it is currently in the same room as the wayside chapels.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum 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.

 

The Treasurer’s Room

Deep within the Wignacourt there is a room built with the purpose of holding a treasure. And, hundreds of years later, it still retains its original features. 

The Treasurer's Room

The Wignacourt Museum in Rabat is a maze of rooms and vaults that have been used for various things over the centuries, including as a place of residence for the Order of the Chaplains, as well as a school. But one particular room is still the same now as it was when it was first built. This is the Treasurer’s Room, located next to the chapel that now houses the reliquary collection.

When the collegiate was turned into a school after World War II, many of the rooms were renovated to accommodate students, but both the Treasurer’s Room and the Chapel of Reliquaries were left untouched. Coincidentally, both of these rooms are rather similar in structure, but the Treasurer’s Room, due to the function it was built for, is slightly different.

Just like the Chapel of Reliquaries, this room opens up to the study area and is divided into three sections, but the arched entrance that leads to the bed in the Treasurer’s Room is much narrower than that in the Reliquary Chapel. This was done with the intent of both warding off thieves as well as forcing them to pass over the bed if they wanted to get to the valuables.

The original wooden treasure chest, which used to encase both silverware and money, is still stored in its original location – on a loft above the bed, set in an alcove. The room also boasts an early example of an en-suite, with an adjoining washroom that allowed the treasurer to keep an eye on the treasure chest at all times.

True to its original purpose, this is the only room at the Wignacourt Museum that has been set up as a bedroom. It also boasts a beautifully-restored 18th century headboard hanging, right where the treasurer’s bed would have been placed hundreds of years ago. This elaborate bedstead, crafted out of wood, holds an image of the Immaculate Conception painted in oils and is surmounted by a crown and enhanced by festoons, scrolls and other decorative details. This image of Immaculate Conception, depicted as standing over a crescent moon crushing a snake, was a common image to have in bedrooms during the period.

Today, the room also plays host to part of the Wignacourt Museum’s collection, with the most important item being the copper bath in the en-suite. This bath is one of the oldest of its kind in Malta, dating back to the 18th century, and it is a faithful representation of the bath the treasurer of the Chaplaincy would have used. On top of that, there are also a number of ex-voto paintings from the filial churches of St Cathaldus and Ta’ Duna, which are both located in Rabat. 

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

Pope Paul V’s Chasuble and Girdle

Among the Wignacourt’s priceless treasures are liturgical vestments belonging to the infamous Pope Paul V.

Camillo Borghese, who went on to become Pope Paul V, was born into a life of privilege and wealth. His family, the Borghesi of Siena, were a powerful, noble lineage that had close ties with the Vatican and, today, their direct descendants are still the Princes of Sulmona, Rossano, Nettuno and many other regions.

As the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Paul V was relatively controversial, particularly with the English. After the Gunpowder Treason Plot of 1605, which was an attempted assassination on King James I of England and VI of Scotland and his parliament, many believed Pope Paul V had had a part in it. In fact, to this very day, the effigy of Pope Paul V is set on fire every Bonfire Night (5th November) at the Lewes Bonfire celebrations.

The strange thing about Pope Paul V’s vestments being at the Wignacourt Museum is that he never physically visited Malta, yet the reason is behind it is relatively obvious. The Spanish hermit Fra Juan Beneguas de Cordova, who had settled on the island to promote St Paul’s Grotto as a central place for pilgrimage and the Pauline cult, was an intimate friend of the Pope’s and an avid collector of relics, reliquaries and liturgical items.

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For this reason, Fra Juan was sent Pope Paul V’s chasuble (1) bearing his personal coat-of-arms, a taffeta stole (2) and maniple (3), and a three-tassled girdle (4) showing symbols from the Passion of Christ, such as the cross, ladder, scourge and nails, as a sign of their friendship.

All these items can now be viewed at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, in a room dedicated to silver and vestments. Along with Pope Paul V’s vestments you can also see many beautifully embroidered liturgical vestments carrying the coat-of-arms of the Grand Masters, among others.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com.

1: an ornate, sleeveless outer vestment

2: a scarf-like vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee

3: a vestment formally worn by priests, which hung from the left arm

4: usually a rope-like belt worn around the waist, but can also be a silk sash.

The Pictures of Alof de Wignacourt

We discover the power, prestige and opulence of the man who gave the Wignacourt Museum its name.

Alof de Wignacourt’s reputation as a protector of the faith, which stemmed from his deeds during the Great Siege of Malta, paved the way towards his becoming a Grand Master of the Order in 1601; and his popularity would indeed prove pivotal when, in 1617, the Spanish hermit Juan Beneguas Da Cardova handed over St Paul’s Grotto to the Order.

Wignacourt quickly saw the opportunity in having such an important location and used it to show off the Order’s, as well as his own, prestige and power. Within a few months he built a college for the Chaplains of the Order, whose sole job was to promote and look after the Grotto day and night. In fact, to this day, Alof de Wignacourt is still hailed as having been a central player in the promotion of the Pauline cult in Malta, and like many of his contemporaries’, his standing was translated onto canvas.

His most important portrait hangs at the Louvre in Paris and was painted by the most famous painter in Rome and Naples at the time, Caravaggio. Nevertheless the Wignacourt hosts two of Alof de Wignacourt’s most iconic pictures: one by Cassarino (1582-1637) and another by an unknown artist.

Alof de Wignacourt by Cassarino

The Cassarino, which is part of the Catania collection, is particularly interesting because of the three inscriptions that are found on it. The first is an anagram that reads ‘G NF DC’, which has also been found on several other paintings around the island and which most probably indicate the artist rather the collector. The second inscription reveals the age of the sitter – who was 70 at the time of creation – and the third records the commissioner of the piece, who was Fr Ludovicus Perrin Dubus.

It should be noted, however, that the Cassarino is not the official portrait commissioned by the first collegiate members of the Wignacourt Foundation. The official one is the piece by the unknown artist and is much larger in size.  This portrait still hangs majestically in the Chapter Hall at the Wignacourt together with the pictures of many other Grand Masters.

Alof de Wignacourt by Unknown

As a side note, when entering the Chapter Hall, one should also note the large, 17th-century portrait of Cosmana Navarra, the benefactress who constructed the present Rabat Parish church, holding the plan of the said church in her hand.

For more information on the Wignacourt Museum and its artefacts you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at info@wignacourtmuseum.com

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

Reunited: Art Expert Prof Sciberras Talks Preti, His Legacy, and the Importance of the Exhibition in Turin.

The recent homecoming of a number of Mattia and Gregorio Preti’s paintings has landmarked the return of the Wignacourt’s enviable Preti collection in its entirety.

The paintings, which were in Turin for five months, formed part of the remarkable exhibition, Il Cavalier Calabrese Mattia Preti tra Caravaggio e Luca Giordano, which was set up to commemorate Mattia Preti’s 400th birthday.

Oriental Man by Gregorio Preti

 We caught up with Professor Keith Sciberras to ask him about the importance of Preti’s legacy to Malta and Maltese art, what makes the Wignacourt’s Pretis special, and just how momentous it was to have a number of the paintings from the Wignacourt’s collection exhibited in Turin.

Mattia Preti plunged Malta directly into the spirit of Baroque art. His manner was triumphant and monumental, and was particularly suited to the imagery required by the knights of Malta,” Professor Sciberras tells us. “The artist gathered around him a large bottega and dominated artistic production in Malta for four decades.  His style imprinted itself on the Maltese baroque tradition.

Mattia Preti

Preti’s pictures of St Peter in Tears and St Peter Blessing at the Wignacourt are wonderful examples of his mid-Maltese period easel works. The artist produced a number of single-figure saints in a close-up rendition typical of the Neapolitan tradition for both the religious and private market,” he continues.

 

Madonna of Sorrows by Mattia Preti

A small Mater Dolorosa, also by the artist and also found at the Wignacourt, is a rare example of his late period small-scale works. The Wignacourt Museum also houses two paintings, representing the Baptism of Christ and St Publius, on temporary loan display from private collections. They are recent additions to Preti’s oeuvre and were discovered in 2012.

The exhibition in Turin, held at the Reggia La Venaria, showcased 50 paintings by Preti and other major artists of the period. The inclusion of the paintings of the Baptism of Christ and St Publius served to introduce these works to art critics and to the general public. Their participation in the show reflects the Wignacourt Museum’s outreach,” he concludes.

Mattia Preti’s work, along with the work of many other artists and artisans, can be enjoyed at the museum and we invite all art enthusiasts, tourists and anyone else who might be interested to visit the Wignacourt.

For more information on the artworks or the museum 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