The Malta Independent 20 January 2020, Monday

Old Mdina cathedral survives in many places

Noel Grima Monday, 15 February 2016, 15:38 Last update: about 5 years ago

On the same day that Mepa approved the massive extension that is to be added to the St John's Cathedral Museum, the other church museum, the Mdina Cathedral Museum was announcing plans for its development and re-starting an activity that had long been in abeyance - the Friends of the Mdina Museum and its Foundation.

Mgr Aloysius Deguara, introducing the evening, spoke about the current restructuring of the museum. The ground floor housing silver items from the cathedral has already been restructured, including the wonderful silver set of statues of the apostles and the Blessed Virgin which originally belonged to St John's and which twice had to be bought back by the Chapter from Napoleon's soldiers.

Work is now in hand in the upper hall which will exhibit the paintings, henceforth according to a progressive chronological order

The main item of the evening however, was a lecture by Professor Stanley Fiorini about the parts of the old Mdina cathedral which still survive.

The old cathedral was built in 1299. It is not true, as many tour guides tell people, that the old cathedral was destroyed in the January 1693 earthquake.

On the contrary, as early as 1679, (that is, 14 years before the earthquake) plans were being drawn up to build a new cathedral, built around the old cathedral, as many times has happened in other Maltese villages, from Mosta to Xewkija. The earthquake, if anything, hurried up the process of the construction of new cathedral.

In 1689, Mattia Preti painted the altar piece and the apex above it depicting St Paul's shipwreck. After the earthquake, Mattia Preti was commissioned to repair the damage to the paintings as a result of the earthquake but the paltry sum he was paid, 50 scudi, indicates that the damage was slight.

There are a number of items from the old cathedral which exist outside the cathedral.

There is a marble holy water spout also used as a baptismal font which can be found in the Gharb parish church in Gozo. It was made by Cagini in 1474 and was also used as a baptismal font in the Carmelite church in Mdina when this was being used as a pro-cathedral during the construction works.

A crucifix from the old cathedral is in the Dingli parish church. It was made by Calcerano Locobello in Syracuse in 1535. However, it was said to be suspended from a steel beam in Holy Week and the present body of Christ on the crucifix does not seem able to fit the beams, leading one to suspect the body has been changed. Moreover the present one is a papier-mâché one. Documentation exists which shows it was given to the Dingli church in 1715.

There is a limestone ledger stone that has found its way to Palazzo Dorell in Gudja. The inscription on it reads "Por Amor Miles Franciscu Cortu". It is to be found hanging on the garden wall.

Finally, there still exist four columns from the old cathedral. One column can be found in Howard Garden in Rabat while the others are in the National Museum.

As regards items that can be found inside the cathedral itself, one is still very active. This is Petronilla, the cathedral's oldest bell, made in Venice in 1370, and still hanging in the southwest belfry and ringing for Mass today.

The still existing Chapter Hall dates from 1621 and was paid for by Bishop Cagliares. Tommaso Dingli worked in it as a scarpellino.

Another relic from the former cathedral is coat of arms of the Universitas.

Yet another relic is the gabled roof on top of the Chapter House as well as the wood paneling and the ornate cupboards in the sacristy.

The painting on the sacristy altar is that of the Virgin of Sorrows painted in 1627.

There are also two ledger-stones commemorating two bishops, one of them being Bishop Cagliares.

The wooden hood on top of the baptismal font was made in Syracuse in 1600.

The icon of the Virgin and Child, mistakenly known as the Virgin and Child, of Sicilian-Byzantine make, dates from 1250 and today is to be found in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Yet another relic is a Gothic processional cross that was later adapted to be an altar cross, a late 15th Century make.

Then there is an Evangelarium of Siculo-Byzantine make, dated from 1160 which has been studied by Martina Caruana.

Here Professor Fiorini touched on an issue about which he holds strong views which run counter to those espoused by the late Godfrey Wettinger - that Malta never stopped being Christian not even under the Muslims but that Malta switched to the Greek version of Christianity from the Latin version.

When the Muslims were kicked out of Malta, the Latin influence re-entered starting from the Castrum Maris (today's Fort St Angelo) which became a centre for Norman soldiers who also brought the Latin culture with them.

The above-mentioned Evangelarium came to Mdina from the Castrum Maris and the Latin Christian soldiers there. The Evangelarium also contained two free-flying pages depicting the Golgotha scene and St Paul painted in a marked Romanesque manner.

It is obvious that the veneration of St Paul was a key element of the Latin influence.

In the Cathedral Museum itself one can admire the surviving panels of the Polyptych of St Paul, a 15th century High Altar pala from the famous bottega of Luis Borassa of Catalunya. This Siculo-Catalan pala, shows St Paul with the sword pointing upwards and resting on his shoulders, typical of Latin iconography.

A close examination of one of the panels shows two details with special reference to Malta - the coat of arms of the Universitas and the Miracle of the Viper after the Shipwreck in Malta.

One can also admire the Riza of the pala, the silver covering adorned with jewels that covered the figure of St Paul on the great feasts.

One can also admire two antiphonaries also dating back to the Castrum Maris from 1274, interestingly in the Aquitanian music notation on a single line instead of our five lines (and Gregorian music's four lines), coming from Sicily as well.

Among the wooden relics from the old cathedral one must mention the old door of the cathedral, dating from Norman times, which today still functions as a door inside the sacristy.

Around the corridors of the museum one can also admire the choir stalls from the old cathedral, dating back to 1482. The stalls were originally in the St Dominic church in Rabat but the bishop intervened and these stalls were transferred to the cathedral in exchange for the old cathedral stalls. By 1487 these stalls were in place, all 20 of them. They were increased to 24 in 1712 and replaced by the ones one finds today in 1876, hence not as a consequence of the earthquake.

Among the paintings from the old cathedral one may mention the triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso with St Peter and St James, painted by Salvo d'Antonio from Messina in 1493.

Another painting ascribed to Pietro Vaccaro in 1483, dedicated to St James, hung in a side altar.

Another relic from the old cathedral can be seen high up in the apse, the coat of arms of Charles V who gave Malta to the Order of St John.

In the cathedral museum there is also a wooden gilt throne for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, made around 1222. A closer inspection shows it had the possibility of being carried, which have since been sawn off. A similar gilt throne, rather more elaborate, can be found in Trapani in Sicily.

Lastly, the newly-restructured museum will house the old organ railings which were made in Naples in 1601. As to the old organ of the cathedral, this was given by the cathedral to the parish church of St George in Qormi which in turn passed it on to the Tal-Hlas church.



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