The Malta Independent 18 January 2019, Friday

Our Heritage saved: Hal Millieri chapel

Malta Independent Monday, 19 March 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Nestling between the medieval villages of Crendi, Saphi, Bobakra and Zuris, an early 16th century map indicates the village of Hal Millieri as Meleri.

Though Casal Millieri was first documented in 1419, its origins are lost in antiquity, seeping to Roman and perhaps even to prehistoric times. The Roman villa that existed in the vicinity might have continued to function until the Muslim conquest of 870 AD. Up to circa 1200 AD no clear evidence exists about the occupation of the casale. Most probably the place name emanates from someone with the Sicilian name of Millieri though a Latin term origin is not to be discarded. There is also a popular belief that the name derives from Milliar, which is a Roman Mile, or from Mille Rei, meaning one thousand exiles.

The cluster of farmhouses and their churches in Hal-Millieri were not supported by a large population and the families were of local stock, possibly descendants of those who had inhabited the area since Muslim times. The population remained stable, reaching its peak of about 250 people in the early 17th century. As from 1685 the population started to decrease dramatically by gradual migration to nearby villages offering better services and security. The last births were recorded in 1711. Thereafter, the village was deserted but the churches remained a centre of devotion for quite some time.

All that remains of the hamlet of Casal Millieri is the chapel of The Annunciation of the Virgin and the nearby chapel of St John the Evangelist. Both chapels have been restored by Din l-Art Helwa.

Built around the 1450s on the site of an earlier 13th century chapel, the Annunciation chapel displays all the characteristics of late medieval church architecture. Its layout is just below ground level, descending three steps. Measuring about 5m wide and 7m long, it is divided into five bays by four slightly pointed arches with stone benches built in the space provided between the arches. Tombstones are guarded by a set of frescoed Byzantine saints. Its apse, hood-moulded doorway, parvis, and graffiti single it out as a unique surviving example of one of the few monuments of Malta’s medieval past. The large blocks of masonry that were utilised for the base of the earlier church came from a nearby Roman villa. It may be presumed that a large Roman olive grinder found in the grounds of the chapel also came from this Roman site.

Adjacent to this chapel once stood the church of The Visitation, which was erected towards the end of the 15th century. Following its deconsecration in 1667 it was demolished.

In 1968, following years of neglect and use as a stable, the Hal Millieri Annunciation chapel was entrusted to Din l-Art Helwa. Soil, undergrowth, rubble and debris covered this area for centuries until the cleaning and excavations by Teenagers Din l-Art Helwa brought to light the flagstone floor, parts of the walls and half of the apse. Pieces of pottery, iron, carved stone, coins and other historical items were found and listed. The Farsons Foundation has generously supported the general restoration and maintenance of the chapel.

The subsequent restoration of the nationally unique fresco cycle that had lain hidden for centuries under many coatings of whitewash was carried out by experts. Unfortunately, most of the lower parts of the paintings were lost but some graffiti scattered over the walls were uncovered. Maintenance of these frescoes is ongoing and over the years involved institutions as Courtauld’s, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Malta University, the Museums Department, and the Malta Centre for Restoration. Din l-Art Helwa leaves no stone unturned (no pun intended) to fulfil its mission statement. Regular inspections and conservation plans are in place for the preservation of this treasure.

Blending Byzantine influence with early Romanesque traits, the Hal Millieri frescoes depict an archaic selection of apostles, martyrs and saints venerated in Maltese churches before the 16th century. Presumably, these were a replica of the previous chapel’s frescoes.

The painter may have been a Sicilian by the name of “Garinu” whose signature was discovered below the surface of the St Agatha and St Blaise panel. Although the paintings appear so colourful the artist employed a limited number of colours derived from earlier material.

The inscriptions are in very angular gothic letters which help us to identify the saints – from the left as you enter – as St Vincent, St Lawrence and St John, St James, St Andrew, St Nicholas, St Leonard, St Agatha and St Blaise, St Augustine, and St Paul. St George appears twice, on either side of the doorway, riding a prancing horse and slaying a dragon.

The Annunciation chapel is best reached from Zurrieq. Arriving at the fountain roundabout as you enter Zurrieq, turn right to Wied iz-Zurrieq then again first right. When you arrive at a junction of three roads ahead of you, take the narrow road to the right until you reach the arched gate leading to the chapel. The chapel is hardly visible from the road.

Din l-Art Helwa opens the chapel to the public in the morning of every first Sunday of the month from 9am till noon. In an annual open-day to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, the chapel is open from 9am till 6pm. Holy Mass is said at 10am with a guided tour of the chapel at 9am and at 3pm. This year, this event will be held on Sunday 25 March and the public is invited to attend.

The above details on the chapel are excellently amplified in Mario Buhagiar’s Medieval Churches in Malta and in Anthony Luttrell’s Hal Millieri: a Maltese Casale, Its Churches and Paintings published in 1976.

Be a guardian of Malta’s heritage by becoming a member of Din l-Art Helwa. For more details send an e-mail to [email protected] indicating your name and address, or visit our website www.dinlarthelwa.org.

Mr Rizzo is a Council Member of Din l-Art Helwa.

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