The Malta Independent 21 August 2019, Wednesday

Statue’s 90th Anniversary

Malta Independent Sunday, 16 August 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Carmel Bezzina

The feast of the Madonna tal-Abbandunati at Wardija, due to be held on Sunday 23 August, will this year assume an added significance as the processional statue of the Madonna, one of the early works of the Gozitan statuarian Wistin Camilleri (1885-1979), marks its 90th anniversary.

The church of the Madonna tal-Abbandunati is a juspatronatus of the Manduca Piscopo Macedonia family. Many people still vividly remember the late Count Bernardo Manduca Piscopo Macedonia Zamitt (1891-1971), who in his lifetime enlarged the church and embellished it as his most prized treasure. Today, his great nephew and worthy successor, Count Alfred Manduca Piscopo Macedonia, is keeping up the family tradition and celebrating Our Lady’s feast with due


Orrigins of the devotion

The devotion to Our Lady Ta’ l-Abbandunati traces its origin in Malta to the late 17th century through the initiative of Bailiff Fra Ramon Perellos y Roccaful, who was later to be elected Grand Master of the Order, reigning from 1697 to 1720. Fra Ramon Perellos built a church in Our Lady’s honour at Gnien Bufula or Gnien il-Ballut in present day Wardija, a picturesque hamlet overlooking Xemxija Bay and St Paul’s Islands. Contiguous to the church is the Kastell tas-Sultan, as this spot was Perellos’ favourite resort. The deed of the church’s endowment was recorded by Notary Michele Gio. Bonavita on 21 December 1689, and its feast day was to be held annually on 11 May.1

Fra Ramon Perellos, of Spanish origin hailing from Aragón, seems to have been particularly devoted to the famous Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados, deeply revered as the patron of Valencia. This title honours the Virgin Mary’s intercession towards the betterment and protection of the downcast and underprivileged. The statue of the Virgin of the Abandoned is venerated at Valencia’s Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados, built between 1652 and 1667 by Diego Martinez Ponce de Urruana. The basilica, situated in the old part of the city, has been considered as the most important religious building in Valencia since the 17th century, and till this day is one of the popular venues in this city. The statue of the Virgin, Gothic in style, is adorned with jewels donated by devotees. The Madonna has long hair and her face is in the Byzantine tradition.

Stefano Erardi’s painting

The attachment of Fra Perellos to this holy effigy prompted him to commission the renowned Maltese artist Stefano Erardi (1630-1716) to reproduce a faithful copy of La Virgen de los Desamparados as the church’s altarpiece. Stefano Erardi was a leading artist of the latter half of the 17th century who, notwithstanding the harsh competition Maltese artists had to face from renowned foreign artists, managed to secure numerous commissions. Throughout the nearly 60 years of his artistic production, he is known to have executed more than 60 oil-on-canvas paintings found in churches, museums and collections throughout Malta and Gozo. Although Erardi has a reputation for copying from prints and engravings, and borrowing from typologies used by artists of the Italian Baroque,2 he is nonetheless attributed with managing to develop a personal style “while convincingly executing the designs with great draughtmanship and an inventiveness in the application of colour”.3

Erardi’s Madonna tal-Abbandunati in Wardija is classified by critics among the artist’s later works, circa 1697. The painting, treasured with devotion by the inhabitants of the hamlet ever since, depicts the crowned effigy of the Virgin Mary, carrying the child Jesus on her left arm and holding a bunch of lilies in her right hand. The Virgin and Child are clad in richly embroidered attire, pyramidal in shape, resting on clouds and supported on both sides by little angels. The painting is rather dark in colour, but this is typical of Erardi’s late works, characterised by the artist’s use of chiaroscuro. The altarpiece is presumably a copy of an engraving of La Virgen de los Desamparados found in Valencia. Three other oil paintings attributed to Erardi are also found at Wardija, depicting St Bernard, St Jerome, and the Virgin Immaculate.

Wistin Camilleri’s statue

When, in the early decades of the previous century, Count Bernardo Manduca embarked on various

initiatives to enlarge and adorn his chapel at Wardija, one of his priorities was the commissioning of a processional statue of the Madonna. The work was entrusted to the young statue-maker from Gozo, Wistin Camilleri (1885-1979). Wistin is considered one of the leading papier-mâché statuarians on the islands, who followed in the tradition of other artists like Guzeppi Vella (1802-1866), Karlu Darmanin (1825-1909), Glormu Darmanin (1834-1879), and Vincenzo Cremona (1851-1912). Wistin Camilleri was then in the early years of his artistic career, having studied at the School of Art in Valletta under the direction of leading artist Giuseppe Calì and then proceeding for a two-year course at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, under Canonica, Pizzardi, and Mancini.4 Humble and calm by nature, Wistin “was above all a deeply religious and spiritual man”, whose “art was a vehicle for his unwavering faith”.5 His studio was in Triq Ghajn Qatet, Victoria, Gozo.

The statue of the Madonna tal-Abbandunati is an early work of Wistin Camilleri, manufactured around the year 1919.6 It is evident that the artist took his inspiration from Erardi’s altarpiece, while making the necessary adaptations to translate a painted figure into a three-dimensional lifelike statue. In creating this statue Wistin must have surely followed Count Bernardo’s wish, bearing in mind the devotion Count Manduca cherished for the historical 17th century painting. This processional statue is justly considered a good exemplary of Wistin Camilleri’s promising early work, a foretaste of his vast artistic and creative output. According to critics, Wistin managed to produce a style combining neo-classical elements, which were consonant with his temperament, and traits from baroque in order to satisfy popular tastes. This commission for Wardija was only the first step in a flourishing relationship between Count Bernardo and the Gozitan artist who, together with his sons, the Camilleri Cauchi brothers, was later entrusted with other commissions.7

Balzan’s Madonna tal-Abbandunati

Another artistic statue, bearing witness to Count Manduca’s attachment to Stefano Erardi’s painting, is the stone statue adjoining his villa in Hal Balzan. When in 1934 Count Bernardo took up residence in his newly-built Villa Macedonia in Triq Sisner, after moving from the family house close to the village parish church after the passing away of his parents, he built a niche, housing a limestone statue of the Madonna tal-Abbandunati, close to the façade of the Villa, corner with Triq San Valentin. This time the sculptor was Wigi Muscat, known in Balzan as Wigi l-iskultur, who had his workshop in the main street of the village close to the other Balzan landmark, the Madonna tar-Rummiena. A very able and talented stone sculptor, who received his training under the expert direction of Giuseppe Calì, Wigi managed to come up with a faithful copy of Stefano Erardi’s Madonna tal-Abbandunati, delicately carved in Malta stone. For the past 75 years the residents living in the surroundings grew to love this graceful statue and often stop in front of it for a moment of silent prayer.

Festa Programme

This year the programme of

religious activities will kick off on Wednesday, the first day of the triduum. The Rosary will be recited at 6pm, followed by Mass with homily, the Salve Regina, Antiphon, and Eucharistic Celebration. On Saturday, the eve of the feast, there will be the solemn translation of the relic at 5.30pm, followed by sung Mass and the recitation of the First Vespers. On Sunday, 23 August, the feast day proper, there will be low Mass at 7.30am In the evening, at 5.45pm, there will be solemn High Mass and the recitation of the Second Vespers, conducted by Fr Joseph Cilia OFM Conv, parish priest of St Paul’s Bay. The panegyric in honour of Our Lady will be delivered by Fr Mario Galea OFM Conv.

The procession with the devout statue of the Madonna ta’ l-Abbandunati will leave the church at 7.30pm. The festa atmosphere in Wardija will be further enhanced by band marches played by the St Paul Band of St Paul’s Bay, as the band accompanies the procession with the statue of Our Lady. Fireworks will also be let off throughout the procession. The feast comes to a close with the Antiphon and Eucharistic Celebration.

I am sure that throughout this week festa lovers will avail themselves of the opportunity to visit this peaceful hamlet, enjoy a few moments of prayer in the historical Marian shrine, listen to its melodious bells, and appreciate the ingredients of a typical Maltese village festa, while relishing the whole atmosphere of the hamlet set against the backdrop of St Paul’s Islands and Selmun.

1 Vincent Borg, “Marian Devotions in Maltese Diocesan Churches,” in Vincent Borg (ed.), Marian Devotions in the Islands of St Paul (1600-1800), Malta: The Historical Society, 1983, p.208.

2 Keith Sciberras, L-Arti Barokka f’Malta, Malta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2003, p.69.

3 Charlotte Bellizzi, “Stefano Erardi: A seventeenth century artist and his material,” in Treasures of Malta 43, Christmas 2008, p.28.

4 See Michael J. Schiavone & Louis J. Scerri (eds.), Maltese Biographies of the Twentieth Century, Malta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 1997.

5 Joe Camilleri, “Wistin Camilleri: a valid contribution to the art of statue-making in the Maltese Islands,” in Wistin Camilleri: maquettes – statues – sculptures, commemorative booklet for exhibition, Gozo Cathedral, Victoria, 2004.

6 Guido Lanfranco, L-Istatwi Titulari u l-Istatwarji Taghhom, Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin, 1999, p.38.

7 In 1953 Count Bernardo Manduca commissioned Wistin Camilleri with the processional statue of Our Lady of Sorrows for the parish church of Hal Balzan. Count Manduca, a devotee of the Sorrowful Madonna, hailed from this village, where he set up the Confraternity of Our Lady of Sorrows and provided it with all the necessary furnishings, including the altar painting by Emvin Cremona (1919-1987). In Wardija, artists Paul and Alfred Camilleri Cauchi were entrusted with the paintings and stucco works on the dome of the church which were inaugurated 40 years ago, on 24 August 1969. See Eugene Paul Tonna, San Pawl il-Bahar: A Guide, Malta: Kunsill Lokali San Pawl il-Bahar, 2003, p.168.

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