The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

The Chapelle Ardente At St John’s Co-Cathedral

Malta Independent Tuesday, 25 September 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation said that after several months of restoration work on its initiative, the Chapelle Ardente has once again been assembled and displayed in the sacristy at St John’s Co-Cathedral.

One of the main aims of the foundation is preserving the priceless works of art within the Co-Cathedral. Foundation president Paul A. Attard said this was yet another major project that was completed successfully. The restoration was carried out by restoration firm ReCoop and professionally headed by the chief restorer, James Saliba.

The monumental wooden structure was originally made to stand in the centre of St John’s on the occasion of the frequent solemn requiems held in the church to mark the passing away of popes and grand masters and important public figures associated with Catholic countries, such as kings, queens and cardinals.

The aim was to replace the existing catafalque which was then considered outdated in style and to introduce a touch of baroque exuberance to the previously rather austere funeral services held on the demise of a grand master. This magnificent funerary catafalque was made during the reign of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena and was intended for his funeral. It was commissioned in 1726, to Romano Carapecchia, an Italian architect of considerable repute by the French Knight, Fra Joseph de Robins Barbantane, who was the great chamberlain of the Grand Masters’ Palace, and manufactured by a Maltese craftsman, Michele Camilleri, who at that time was the head carpenter of the Order.

With the advent of the neo-classical style, a more simplistic ritual was adopted for funerals and the elaborate baroque catafalque was abandoned. Eventually, it was stored away in the Bartolott crypt at the Co-Cathedral. Cynthia de Giorgio, curator at St John’s, said that had restoration works been prolonged any further, the Chapelle Ardente, probably the only one remaining in Malta, and extremely rare abroad, would have been beyond repair. It had suffered from extensive wood rot and wood worm infestation. Although the restoration was by far the biggest challenge, another challenge lay ahead and that was assembling the structure that soars 10 metres high.

The wood used was spruce which was decorated with several funerary symbols such as skulls and bones. Some parts were also painted to give the illusion of prestigious woods such as walnut and ebony, a technique called finta-vera.

The Chapelle Ardente consisted of a base with projecting steps, carved wood features, and a number of blank spaces for the attachment of escutcheons and inscriptions which could be changed according to the occasion. This was finished with a royal crown symbolising the sovereign status of the Order surmounted with the eight-pointed cross of the Knights of Malta. The elaborate design also included 230 candles which were lit to provide an exceptional spectacle for the occasion.

When Grand Master Vilhena died in 1736, it was erected opposite the high altar in the centre of the church. It was last assembled in 1963 to mark the death of Pope John XXIII.

The historical Chapelle Ardente will be a leading exhibit during Notte Bianca in Valletta this Saturday.

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