The Malta Independent 24 March 2019, Sunday

The Wignacourt Museum And its treasures (II)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 13 February 2008, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

This being an ecclesiastical museum, it is no surprise that many of the paintings, guaches, watercolours and drawings have a religious flavour, the Pauline theme being most outstanding. Exceptions are 32 portraits, several pictures including A Sybil by a Flemish artist, c 1600; Trees and Flowers by an Italian artist, c 1700; Two Genre Subjects by Bernardino Bisson (1732-1844); a lovely guache with a self-portrait by Giuseppe Hyzler; a series of watercolours of Maltese costumes; an album of drawings by Maltese artists of the Nazarene school and a number of architectural drawings by Giorgio Grognet de Vassè.

The main interest of this museum is the abundant collection of works by Maltese artists, and by those foreign artists who were active in Malta. The Maltese artists include Stefano Erardi, Francesco Zahra, Giuseppe Calì, Vincenzo Hyzler, Robert Caruana Dingli, Francesco Catania and Paolo Galea, besides the above mentioned Grognet and Giuseppe Hyzler. Some of these artists are represented by three, four or five pictures.

To illustrate a few examples one can mention Giuseppe Calì’s canvas depicting St Paul (on a white horse) expelling the Moors, a subject previously treated by Mattia Preti in the Mdina cathedral, Francesco Zahra’s portrait of Bishop Francesco Carmine Pellerano and Vincenzo Hyzler’s large triptych in pencil showing in the central panel St Anne holding the infant Mary together with St Lawrence, flanked by St Paul and St Peter. This triptych was the sketch for an altar-piece in the private chapel of a Maltese noble couple, bearing the names of Marianna and Lawrence. Works by artists active in Malta include two originals by Mattia Preti, Our Lady of Sorrows and St Peter, both executed towards the end of the artist’s life, as well as other works by Preti’s school, and a fine St John and St Paul by Antoine Favray; a theme dear to Favray as it expressed his double loyalty to the Order and to Malta, a theme which the artist repeated at Casa Manresa in Floriana. The Rabat collection includes works by Vincenzo Baiata, the enigmatic Cassarino, Attilio Palombi and Eliodoro Coccoli.

Cassarino is represented by a fine portrait from 1617 showing Grand Master Aloph de Wignacourt at the age of 70. The canvas carries three inscriptions: one with the anagram G NF DC, found in several other paintings in Malta, and probably signifying the artist rather than the collector, another with the age of the sitter, and a third inscription recording the person who gratefully commissioned the portrait, Fr. Ludovicus Perrin Dubus. One should note that this portrait, coming from the Catania collection, was not the official portrait commissioned round about the same time by the first collegiate members of the Wignacourt Foundation. The later, much larger portrait still hangs majestically in the chapter Hall, facing another large 17th century portrait, of Cosmana Navarra, the benefactress who constructed the present Parish church, whose plan she holds in her hand.

A unique painting in the collection is a Madonna and Child inscribed Vincentius Baiata pingebat 1611. This lovely picture was the altar-piece of the now unfortunately abandoned Tal-Virtu Chapel. An entry by Lina Novara in the “Dizionario degli artisti Sciliani” gives details of two artists from Trapani, the sons of Stefano and Francesco Lo Corciuto, both active in the first two decades of the 17th century. Incidentally this picture by Vincenzo is, to date, the only surviving canvas of his oeuvre. Facing the Baiata picture in the same room is a large canvas probably by the same hand, depicting the Immaculate Conception, once hanging in the nearby Church of St Publius from where it was removed in the mid-18th century to make way for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Both pictures show close affinity to the style and colour scheme of Paladini. Further research on Vincenzo Baiata could throw light on his activity in, or for Malta, and perhaps identify more works by this artist

Works by non-Maltese artists include a group of five Byzantine or Byzantinesque icons, all coming from the Collegio Collection, depicting The Virgin, The Virgin and Child, Christus Passus, The Risen Lord and St Paul holding a scroll.

Among works by Italian artists one might mention a fine Madonna and Child with donor by Giugliemo Caccia – il Moncalvo (1568-1629), a Holy Family with Infant Baptist by Pacecco da Rosa (1607-1656), an Adoration of the Shepherds by Paolo Franceschi 16th century, and a Judith and Holofemes and St Rosalia both by the circle of Pietro Novelli. Unattributed works by Italian artists include some fine canvases of the Roman School, particularly a Repentant Magdalene (purchased by Notary F. Catania from the estate of Lord Strickland) and the two altar-pieces of the Museum’s chapel, a Crucifix and its circular sottoquadro Our lady of Sorrows. Other pictures belong to the Neopolitan, the Ferrarese and the Sicilian Schools

Paintings by other European artists include a St Jerome, Bohemian School c. 1600; Annunciation, Flemish School 17th cent., St Lawrence by Adam Elsheimer (1578-1619) and, by the Portuguese Emanuel Pereira, a St Sebastian and St Roque from the sacristies of St Sebastian’s Church, Rabat and formerly at St Roque’s Church in Mdina.

The collection includes various bozzetti, mainly for works executed in the Rabat Parish campus or else presented by local artists with the intention of attracting commissions of work therein. Other bozzetti were prepared for other churches such as St Paul’s, Valletta and Mellieha sanctuary. Also included are a number of architectural designs as well as drawings and sketches for silver-plate.

Among the portraits are important visitors to St Paul’s Grotto, such as Inquisitor Fabio Chigi – the future Pope Alexander VII – and Sir Alexander Ball, Knights who had lived for some time in the Quartiere dei Forestieri and two rectors, Fra Ludovico Savoye and Canon Collegiate Giovanni Saliba, these two being the last rector before and the first after the departure of the Order in 1798. A larger version of Savoye’s portrait, Favrayish in style , is at St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell.

Turning to sculpture one can see in the Museum several pieces in stone, bronze and marble. The oldest are two circular Romanesque medallions showing St Paul with the traditional snake round his neck and St Peter holding keys. These stone medallions were extracted about 20 years ago from the debris of the rock-cut chapel of St Mary Magdalene – one of the many chapels once extant in St Paul’s Cemetery. A roundel in gilt bronze representing The Beheading of St Paul was up till a few years ago in the altar of St Paul’s Grotto. It is the work of Alessandro Algardi and was commissioned via Naples in 1680. Two alabaster statutes representing St Sebastian and the Blessed Virgin come from the filial churches of St Sebastian and Ta’ Duna respectively. The latter carries the arms of the donor Canon Famucelli (1685). In the same room one can see two wax compositions with groups of figures representing the biblical episodes of the Annunciation and the Deposition. A curious 1608 stone statue shows St Peter with six toes – an artistic attribute indicating praeternatural powers.

The museum possesses some attractive items of furniture such as an 18th century cabinet manufactured in ebony and inlaid with ivory, an English grand piano manufactured by Broadwood in 1804, an inlaid pre-dieu with four drawers, on which knelt Pope John Paul II on 4 May 1990, a painted sedan-chair with arms of bishop Giovanni Pellerano, a beautifully carved ecclesiastical catafalque and a unique portable Gallery’s altar, apparently the only surviving specimen of several others that were in obligatory use on the Order’s galleys. Other items of furniture are a church organ manufactured by Annibal Lo Bianco in Galati-Messina in 1753, three Maltese clocks including a very old large one painted with decorative floral motifs and a movable structure of the Altar of Repose that used to be mounted in St Paul’s Grotto on Maundy Thursday – the oldest extant example in Malta.

Church vestments in the museum were mainly gifts of Pope Paul V in 1608, of Inquisitor and future Pontiff Fabio Chigi, of Grand Masters Wignacourt and Pinto as well as more recent gifts. Vestments commissioned by the Collegiate Chapter consist of chasubles, tunics, antependia and the characteristic vestments of the order, the Manto di Punta and the Stolone with symbols of the Passion.

From Notary Catania’s inheritance comes a sizeable collection of Punico-Roman pottery, mostly recovered from fields in the Bahrija area. It includes amphorae, oil bottles, jugs, oinochoe, urns and lamps with a rare item of red-ware dating from the 7th century before Christ. There are also some beautiful specimens of Maiolica.

On display is a small collection of coins of the Order of St John and of the English period, as well as various commemorative medals.

The graphic section includes old maps of Malta among which the rare MELITA INSULA of 1588 and a minutely executed coloured manuscript map of Malta by Bali’s secretary Felice Cutajar with long detailed legend, signed and dated 1883. There is also a collection of engravings by the Maltese Giacomo Farrugia (a gift of the Briffa Brincati family) and some rare books including the earliest printed descriptions of Malta by Quintinus published in Lyon 1536 and a leather-bound book of Hours by Philippe Pigouchet with parchment pages, woodcuts and several tiny miniatures.

Worth a visit!

(The museum opens daily from Monday to Saturday from 10am to 3pm)

An author and scholar Mgr John Azzopardi is the curator of the Wignacourt College Museum, Rabat.

This article first appeared in the Easter 1998 issue of ‘Treasures of Malta’, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. ‘Treasures of Malta’ is a magazine about art and culture which is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops. The first part of this article was published on 30 January

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