The Popes At the Wignacourt: Pope Alexander VII

As one of the holiest sites in Christian Europe, St Paul’s Grotto has attracted some truly noteworthy visitors, including the former Inquisitor of Malta turned Pope, Fabio Chigi.

By the 1600s, St Paul’s Grotto had become a renowned holy site in Christendom; its reputation cemented by the thousands of pilgrims flocking to it from all over Europe. But while many people nowadays know about Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI’s visits to the Grotto, few know that the Inquisitor of Malta Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII, had also visited this saintly place.

The Spanish Inquisition (source: http://www.wynnwagner.us/tag/inquisition/)

The Spanish Inquisition (source: http://www.wynnwagner.us/tag/inquisition/)

Having its roots in 12th-century France, the Inquisition was an ecclesiastical judicial system set up to rid Christendom of the Cathars, whose ideology clashed with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the Inquisition grew to become a universal force, which persecuted anyone who was deemed to be a heretic, including people who were believed to practice witchcraft and those whose allegiance was thought to be with the devil.

Malta – its roots deep in the Roman Catholic faith and feudalised to the Order of St John – was not spared the dark days of the Holy Inquisition and Fabio Chigi is one of the most infamous members of the Maltese branch of this Holy Office. In fact, as the Inquisitor of Malta, Chigi was one of the most powerful and respected men on the island, and his role at St Paul’s Grotto was more than that of a simple visitor.

Chigi was renowned for the Masses he celebrated in the Grotto, and many important people attended to hear his homilies – including a famous German mathematician and the librarian of the Vatican. Nevertheless, while according to documents and letters Chigi was very critical of the Grotto, in a letter addressed to his uncle dated 8th February 1636, Chigi also believed the Grotto to have medicinal properties.

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source: http://www.papalartifacts.com/pope/47)

Pope Alexander VII next to his Papal Tiara (source: http://www.papalartifacts.com/pope/47)

In fact, Chigi often had very different ideas about the Grotto, such as a theory that the humidity which afflicted the place was not coincidental but rather the consequence of a well found underneath the Grotto. This, was later actually proven to be true.

After serving as the Inquisitor of Malta, Fabio Chigi went on to become Pope in 1655 and served as such until his death in 1667. It would be another 400 years before another Pope or Pope-to-be visited the holy site, and Chigi’s association with the Grotto definitely helped boost St Paul’s Grotto’s reputation.

Chigi’s role was so important on the Maltese isles that copies of an original portrait were created, one of which can still be seen at the Wignacourt. It has been part of the body of the original collection of artwork for centuries.

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.