In a previous article, I had referred to the Mellieħa Marian National Shrine and its ancient Madonna icon. Today I shall give a few more details of the Madonna and Child. We shall have a glimpse of its millennial history which leaves no doubt that Marian devotion in Malta goes back to the beginning of the Christian era. Our Lady of Mellieħa has a long history shrouded in mystery and tradition. One of the oldest traditions is that St. Paul’s companion, the Evangelist Luke, painted the fresco during his sojourn in Malta way back in AD 60. Another tradition confirms this and relates that in 409, a number of Catholic bishops visited the hallowed Grotto and consecrated it as a church. However, the present Icon is of late Siculo-Byzantine origins. Probably it was painted during the 13th century. In the following centuries the devotion to the icon increased greatly.
Pilgrims from every corner of the Christian lands of the Mediterranean and from all walks of life arrived to pray at the Sanctuary of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.Here they asked for special graces, sometimes miracles, through the intercession of Our Lady, as the many ex voto donations exhibited in the sacristy witness.
During his Apostolic visit, exactly 30 years ago, even Pope St. John Paul II himself prayed devoutly before the Madonna and Child. Yes, 30 years ago today, on May 26, 1990, this great saint visited Malta and the belovedMellieħaMarian Shrine! It is also amazing that Monday, May 18, just a week ago, was his 100th birthday! When he visited Malta he had just turned 70.
The painting’s iconography reflects the Council of Ephesus’ (431) definition of Mary as the Theotokos (God bearer). She carries Jesus in Her arms. The tradition of St. Luke being the painter is based on another tradition that the Evangelist had painted Mary in Jerusalem, an icon that was taken to Constantinople during the 5th century. This icon is widely copied and it has become one of the most common images of Our Lady. Yet another tradition identifies Luke’s painting with the Salus Populi Romani in Santa Maria Maggiore. A very recent conservation and restoration project, began in 2013, found it badly damaged due to underground dampness and inhospitable environment. Serving as a sanctuary for centuries takes a heavy toll on all works of art. However, painstaking and elaborate care and professional restoration works gave us back this priceless treasure.
Thanks to this work, amazing secrets of the holy icon came to light: the inscription on the left and the right, MAT DEI, an abbreviation for “Mother of God”; a flower or star on the Madonna’s forehead representing her eternal virginity. Other interesting features are details of the two halos, such as pearls, standing for light and brightness, and traces of dark color on the Infant’s halo, which when connected form a cross within it. This symbol is found in many Byzantine representations of Christ. The original color of the Madonna’s veil was a strong reddish hue — the imperial color, in fact known as “imperial purple,” the symbol of royalty. It is a typically Byzantine tradition, Mary in all Her Majesty. The restoration work revealed that the artist wanted to send a message about the Hodegetria Virgin (She who shows the Way). Mary points to the Child as the path to Salvation.
The following paragraph sums up the series of events and happenings the Grotto and painting experienced, which also shed light on how through time the icon suffered extensive alterations due to raids, unfavorable environmental conditions, and restoration interventions that were supposed to compensate for the losses in the image. I feel that Valentina Lupo and Maria Grazia Zenzani, who restored for posterity the holy icon, deserve our gratitude.
Three significant pastoral visits to the Mellieħa Sanctuary were those of Bishop Senatore De Mello in 1436, when it was classified as one of the 10 parishes of Malta; Bishop Dusina in 1575; and that of Bishop Tommaso Gargallo in 1587, when he found that the holy icon was badly damaged. He decided to appoint the Augustinian Friars to cover it with a new icon. However, in 1600, the parish was suppressed due to frequent marauding raids by Muslim corsairs. In fact, in 1614, the Sanctuary was brutally vandalized during such a raid by Barbary pirates. The lower parts of the paintings were severely damaged. Before 1644, devotees of the Blessed Virgin funded the restoration of the icon and covered it with a layer of silver riza, leaving visible the faces of Mother and Child.
In spite of the danger and hardship involved in visiting the sanctuary in those troubled times, the devotion towards Our Lady never stopped, and in fact pilgrimages and pilgrims visited frequently. Our Lady was asked for her protection even in moments of national crises, for example in times of contagious diseases, dangers of invasion and drought, as witness the triumphal arch built in 1719 at the entrance of the sanctuary courtyard. In 1882, the Sanctuary was visited by Charles Cardinal Lavigerie. Records show that His Eminence found the icon in a very poor state, colors faded out and faces unrecognizable. In 1899, it was decided to cover the fresco with a painting on canvas showing Our Lady. This painting was executed by the 18th-century artist Favray. In 1972, during restoration work on the ceiling of the Sanctuary, Samuel Bugeja, artist and restorer, had an intuition that there might be another painting behind the icon. He asked Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s permission to remove the plaster layer. Thanks to Bugeja’s insight, one of a number of overlaying images of Our Lady was discovered. This paved the way for the discovery of the original icon during the 2013 restoration, so that itis today once again restored to posterity. It was brought back to light after laying buried for 400 years.
Presently, the Sanctuary of the Holy Icon is one of 20 National Marian Shrines which form the EuropeanMarianNetwork. Also, the Mellieħa Madonna Shrine is a member of the Association Mary,MotherofEurope. In 2015, the Maltese Episcopal Conference established it as the National Shrine of Our Lady for the diocese of Malta.