The Malta Independent 17 November 2018, Saturday

Xaghra Church titular painting restored to its former glory

Malta Independent Sunday, 27 June 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Xaghra parish church organised a programme of activities to mark the 2025th anniversary of the birth of the Virgin Mary. A night vigil was held in Xaghra’s main square on 7 June, the launch date of the programme The centre of attention of the night vigil was the titular painting which depicts the moment when the baby Mary has just been given a bath by a group of women soon after her birth.

The parish church embarked on a project involving the conservation and restoration of the titular painting. It was the first time such a project had been undertaken since 1955, when the painting was restored for the first time by Maltese artist Rafel Bonnici-Calí of Tarxien. This time the project was entrusted to Zejtun-born restorer,\ Manwel Zammit, who is currently also restoring the paintings in the side aisles of the parish church.

The titular painting was removed from its central place behind the high altar at the end of May and transferred to the church oratory just behind the principal sacristy. It took the restorer two weeks to clean the accumulated dust, the smoke residue from burning candles and ash that had fallen and settled on the painting during the last half-century or so. When the painting was removed from its place, it transpired that during the last restoration, the canvas had been mounted on sheets of wood supported by a grid of traversing wooden beams. The original wooden frame, around which the canvas is stretched, was riddled with woodworm, but in 1955 action was taken to exterminate them and the sheets of woods were hammered to the original frame.

On closer inspection, a number of interesting points emerged. Fortunately, the 1955 restoration in no way altered the original colours applied by the artist. The whole canvas is composed of three stretches of string fabric with a layer of white lead and other materials that served as a smooth bed onto which the image was painted and coloured.

It emerged that Rafel Bonnici-Calí had separated the canvas from the frame. The whole canvas is made up of three strips of canvas; two of them are stretched vertically while the left hand strip is made up of other three small pieces. Bonnici-Cali’ removed the joint seams that held the strips of canvas together and glued them to the new wooden boards by laying them neatly together.

The painting seems to have gone through a number of developments. Originally, it used to depict a wider image because the left vertical frame has a five-inch piece of canvas folded behind the frame on which the figure of a woman servant is very clearly visible. This fact confirms the tradition, which holds that this painting was not purposely executed for the Xaghra parish church but was transferred from a church in Malta whose altar occupied a wider space.

The present restoration was mainly planned to remove the 1955 varnish, which had darkened the painting over the past 55 years and which, as a result, made it difficult for one to see it properly. The cleaning of the 121 by 80 inches artwork, which has now been put back in its place above the Choir altar, also revealed the identity of some of the characters depicted. Such a process has also helped to get nearer to discovering who the author of the painting is.

However, after the old varnish was removed, a number of other problems arose. The 1955 material that filled the line between the joining canvases had deteriorated to such an extent that the painting would soon be unable to be viewed in its original form. Hence, the material had to be substituted with a new one that modern restoration technique demands.

The cleaning process also revealed a very interesting development of the painting. A number of thin perforations in the canvas were discovered around the head of the baby Virgin Mary as well as on different parts of her body particularly on the ear lobes and wrists. The perforations indicate that a small crown surrounded with stars placed in a semi-circle form used to adorn the head, as well as earrings and bracelets on the ear lobes and wrists respectively. Such devotional demonstrations only took place when the painting was in its original place in Malta because there are no such descriptions found in the reports of the pastoral visits to the Xaghra parish church.

However, the most crucial point addressed at this stage is the identification of the artist. Up to some time ago the painting was attributed to Don Carlo Zimech. This may be the result of the writings by Capuchin Friar Pelagio Piscopo who put down such a name while giving a description of the church contents in 1760s. He even reported that the painting was executed in 1744. However, on the board on the reverse side of the painting, the year 1751 was written in paint by Rafel Bonnici Cali’ who declares that this year was written on the reverse side of the original canvas.

On close inspection of the painting, the style used for the composition of the figures, as well as the fine execution of each of them, and also taking into consideration other painting techniques such as brush strokes, the authorship of the paintings points to an artist painter who was well versed in the classical baroque medium. Some of the elements found in the Xaghra painting can also be closely identified with a number of paintings in Malta, some of which also enjoy place of pride in churches and at the National Museum of Fine Arts. The style is consistent with the works of Giuseppe D’Arena himself, or by some of his apprentices under his direct supervision. However, in a world where every bit of information must be supported by primary documentary sources, one should tread carefully when trying to identify the author of the Xaghra titular painting at this early stage.

1744 and 1751 might be the years when the painting was transported to the Xaghra parish and modified to fit the new space by Don Carlo Zimech, who at the time had his residence in Nadur. Surely the execution of the Xaghra painting pays homage to an artist whose brush strokes were firmly established in the art scene.

With the painting heavily documented in photography, the researcher has at his disposal a number of other clues that can be brought into the picture while comparisons and contrasts are made with other sources of verification that may throw further light on the identification of the author. It is hoped that art historians will come up with further clues about the painting including the place for which it was initially commissioned.

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