The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Grinding Judas’ Bones (1)

Malta Independent Wednesday, 4 April 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

The Church bells in the Christian world are customarily silent during Passion Week, from Maundy Thursday to the Gloria on Holy Saturday. Ever since the Middle Ages, during this period bells have been replaced by a wooden clapper or ratchet. These instruments of Holy Week carry several associations in people’s minds – the crowds shouting out to hang Jesus, the Roman soldiers approaching, the suffering of Jesus, repentance for sins committed, mourning for Jesus’ death, or crushing the bones of Judas.

Clappers and scrapers were used by early man in ancient ritual and were attributed with magical powers, particularly that of chasing evil. When later adopted in association with Christianity, they retained some of this magical function.1 Exactly when the practice of using wooden instruments reached the Maltese islands is uncertain, but one would expect the custom to have been adopted in the Middle Ages. By c1759, when the Gozitan Can. Agius de Soldanis listed the word cokklaita in his dictionary, the instrument had already been long established on the islands.2 We have evidence of it being in use in the Zebbug parish, Malta, in 1787, where we are told that a fee of “Scudi 0, tari 4” was paid to one Antonio Zammit on 27 March of that year “per aver accomodato la cocclaeta.”3 Patient delving through other Church records should eventually reveal much earlier use of the instrument.

A traveller describing Good Friday in Malta in 1839, complains that The noise both in the churches and in the street is enough to deafen any person – it is effected by means of rattles and is supposed to be commemorative of the sins of Judas, by cracking his bones.4

The old custom of using wooden instruments continues to this day in many Maltese churches, while in others it went into disuse during the Second World War or as a result of Vatican Council II (1962-65).

Between 1996 and 2002, I visited some 50 churches in the Maltese islands and discovered an unexpected variety of instruments still in existence. In some churches, though they are no longer in use, they have at least been preserved. In others, they have unceremoniously been destroyed or discarded.

Type of instrument and terminology

There are generally two instruments in each church in Malta: a large one used up in the bell tower or on the roof in lieu of the belfry bells, and a much smaller variety used inside the church. Instruments replacing belfry bells developed into large constructions able to produce a sufficient volume of sound to be heard around the village. The other instrument, usually played by an altar boy standing behind the main altar, has much smaller dimensions since it only needs to resound inside the church. Both the large and the smaller instruments are wooden idiophones, known locally as cuqlajta, cuqlqija or coklajta. The Maltese word encompasses a vast range of wooden instruments, irrespective of size, construction or mode of sound produced.

Terminology appears to be imprecise and unreliable in literature encountered not only in the Maltese language, but also in English and Italian. Can. Agius de Soldanis’ translation of cokklaita into Italian is “Tabella. Strumento di suono strepitoso, chi si suona la settimana santa invece delle campane.”5 The Italian term tabella is strictly speaking a clapper, which is only one of the varieties found in Malta. The term may, however, also have been referring to other types of wooden instruments. In English, the cuqlajta has in the past generally been described as a “rattle”, a misleading term that should also be taken to stand generically for a variety of struck or scraped instruments.

Use of the cuqlajta

In Toledo Cathedral in Spain, an instrument known as a matraca plays incessantly for 48 hours before the Gloria on Holy Sunday.6 This means that it is played from Maundy Thursday all the way through to Holy Saturday. In Malta, the cuqlajta is generally only played for short stretches at a time. Not all churches follow the exact pattern of use. Many only use the cuqlajta inside the church during the Elevation in the Maundy Thursday evening Mass, and then again on Good Friday in the belfry to announce the three o’clock function. Others might use it more frequently and for longer stretches. In villages such as Zejtun and Zebbug, where a Good Friday Procession takes place, the belfry cuqlajta is also sounded throughout the whole procession.

One parish that sets itself traditionally-kept specific times of use, and is worth quoting here, is that of St Helen Basilica of Birkirkara:7

• Maundy Thursday:

Inside the church. During Elevation and Sanctus of evening Mass.

After Mass (c7.30pm): when the Sacrament is placed in the sepulchre.8

In the belfry (8.00 to 8.15pm): Calling the faithful to the Seven Visits.9

• Good Friday:

In the belfry (6.45-7.00am): When the priests congregate before the Sacrament.

In the belfry (8.00-8.10am): To announce that the church is opening for Visits to the Sepulchre.

In the belfry (12.00-12.15pm): When the Church is closing.

In the belfry (2.45-3.00pm): Calling the faithful to the 3 o’clock function.

• Holy Saturday:

In the belfry (8.15-8.30pm): Before Easter Mass.

During the Gloria of the Easter Mass, the church bells are once again joyfully resumed, and the wooden instrument put aside till the following year.

Anna Borg Cardona holds diplomas in music, and carried out research on musical instruments.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of Treasures of Malta, which is published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Treasures of Malta is a magazine about art and culture that is published three times a year, and is available from all leading bookshops.

Part 2 will be carried next Wednesday.


1 Klaus P. Wachsmann, “The Primitive Musical instruments” in Musical Instruments through the Ages, ed Anthony Baines, (London, Faber & Faber, 1966), 29

2 Can. Agius de Soldanis, Dizionario Maltese Italiano Latino, Malta National Library, Ms. Libr.143.

3. Haz-Zebbug Bills Register 1781-1818. The word accomodato probably refers to repairs made to an already existing instrument. For this information, I am indebted to Dun Salv Caruana, who carried out research on the Zebbug parish registers.

4. Anonymous diary 1839, Malta National Library, Libr. 1438.

5. Tabella. A stridulent instrument which is played during Holy Week instead of bells (tr. Anna Borg Cardona). Dizionario Maltese Italiano Latino, Ms. 143, 117v. See also Damma, Ms 143, 97r.

6. Dizionario Encilopedico Universale della Musica e dei Musicisti (1984) sub voce matraca.

7. For this information I am indebted to Can. Anton Mallia Borg and the informative cuqlajta player, Vladimir.

8. On Maundy Thursday the Sacrament is moved from the main altar to a side altar which is decorated profusely with white flowers and sprouting grain. This altar of repose is known as the Sepulkru. G. Cassar Pullicino compares this custom, also observed in Sicily and Calabria, to that of placing flowers on the grave of Adonis. See Studies in Maltese Folklore, (Malta University Press, 1992) 52.

9. On Maundy Thursday evening and Good Friday morning, the Maltese traditionally visit the Sepulchre in seven different churches, reciting prayers.

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