The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

Our Heritage Saved: St Roque Chapel

Malta Independent Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Small wayside chapels are a special feature of the Maltese Islands, and this charming early 17th century chapel was purposely built for prayers to deliver people from the plague. Most chapels are now found on the outskirts of villages, but this one is right in the centre of Zebbug, in an urban environment rather different to its rural surroundings of many years ago.

In 1592, the first bubonic plague epidemic hit the Maltese Islands, probably brought over by the galleys of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. About 3,000 people died of this killer disease.

The small chapel of St Roque was built in the same year as the result of a vow to the saint by a couple from Zebbug, Katerina and Tumas Vassallo, if he would spare the village from the plague. After their death, they also bequeathed a field in the vicinity of Wied is-Sewda so that its produce could be sold to finance the rent and to pay for the celebration of Holy Mass on the feast of St Roque on 16 August every year. At around this time, other chapels dedicated to this saint were built in Valletta, Balzan and Birkirkara.

St Roque was French and lived in the 14th century. It is said that he turned down a wealthy inheritance and dedicated himself to curing the sick. He survived the plague, which he contracted while caring for victims of this disease. Legend has it that his dog licked his wounds clean and helped him survive, which is why he is considered as the protector of those suffering from the plague. He is nearly always depicted with his dog at his feet whenever he is represented in paintings or statues. A statue of St Roque stands at the street corner in front of the chapel, and the painting of the saint above the main altar is an early 17th century work by an unknown artist that was restored in 1989.

The chapel is typical of an architectural style that uses the soft local stone because wood was scarce. It is roofed with stone slabs on three arches that divide it into four bays. It measures eight metres long and seven metres wide and has no side openings. On top of the entrance is a small circular window and a carved rectangular frame void of any internal decorations. The chapel is further adorned with a single arched belfry that still holds a small bell and two waterspouts drain rainwater from the roof. There is still a stone bench around the side of the chapel and an attractive parvis at the entrance measures exactly half the area of the chapel.

This is the only chapel among the 14 of Zebbug to have survived in its original form. It has been in the care of Din l-Art Helwa since 1980, when the ecclesiastical authorities granted it in guardianship to the organisation that has maintained it rigorously over the years. The chapel was re-opened in 1989 on the initiative of Michael Bonnici, who is still its custodian.

It houses a collection of exhibits consisting of early 20th century photographs of Zebbug and its numerous chapels and memorabilia and artefacts dedicated to numerous important personalities born in Zebbug. Among these are patriots Dun Mikiel Xerri, Bishop Francis Saviour Caruana, the “father of the Maltese language” Mikiel Anton Vassalli, Malta’s national poet Dun Karm Psaila and well known artists Lazzaro Pisani, Francis Saviour Sciortino and Antonio Sciortino, whose works of art embellish many places in Malta.

Over the last two years, the internal structure of the chapel has been restored and its contents refurbished and enhanced to a modern state of presentation. This work was made possible with the financial support of Round Table (Malta) One.

The Chapel of St Roque in Main Street, Zebbug, was reopened by Din l-Art Helwa this year on 3 April. It is open on request and is of great interest to scholars and visitors alike.

For more information please call 2122-0358 or 9942-4176.

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

Victor Rizzo is treasurer of Din l-Art Helwa

Photos: Joseph Chetcuti and Victor Rizzo

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