The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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Book review: The church with its back in a bastion

Noel Grima Sunday, 4 February 2024, 08:35 Last update: about 3 months ago

The first church of Valletta - Our Lady of Victory

Editor: Petra Caruana Dingli

Publisher: Din L-Art Helwa / 2023

Pages: 255

 

It is not just the first church in Valletta but most probably the very first building in the new city, built after the conclusion of the Great Siege.

Built by Grand Master de Valette, the original church of Our Lady of Victory was a small, rudimentary building on the highest point of Valletta, with the grand master's residence next to it. That was the original intention, anyway.

The church, small as it was, was strongly desired by the grand master who prayed in it at all hours of the day. It was also Valletta's first cemetery and de Valette insisted he wanted to be buried there for ever but his successors transferred him to St John's.

He also turned it into the headquarters of the Order after the relocation from Vittoriosa. The church thus became the council chamber and sessions, not all very edifying, were held in. One day an angry English knight with drawn sword and shouting imprecations, rushed in during a council session.

The church also served as a court room and many times the ancient and solemn rite of defrocking of knights found guilty was held in it.

After a time, as more people flocked to the new city, the old church became too small for the crowds especially on festivities. The decision was thus taken to enlarge the church at both ends and specifically digging was undertaken behind the main altar inside the Saint James bastion.

For a long time there was a legend that the foundation stone of Valletta was buried underneath the church and you can still find this repeated in guide books. It has now been proved this is not true and the foundation stone is in fact buried under the St John bastion, on the other side of the entrance to the city.

The enlargement of the church allowed for the creation of two other altars in the intervening space.

Sometime later the church was again enlarged, this time towards the front. This is when the church got its admirable Baroque front with coats of arms, which were destroyed by the French.

The papal tiara and the figure of a pope, Innocent XII, to thank him for his intervention in a dispute between the bishop of the time and the rector of the church, complete the facade, although there were other minor changes later.

According to some experts the resulting front end of the church resembles and maybe is derived from the church of Our Lady of Liesse, down at the seafront.

The church's entrance is approached by two flights of steps, like other buildings in the area and the church (Saint Catherine) opposite. These are not original but derive from changes in the road height of the entire area as a result of storms.


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