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The cave churches of Malta: symbols of entombment and resurrection (Part I)

Image Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta

MTA - Malta Tourism Authority - published on 06/26/21

Early Christians in the archipelago turned caves and pre-existing catacombs into chapels that could accommodate a growing community of believers.

From prehistoric cave dwellings and burial chambers to medieval and modern  military tunnels, the history of Malta is deeply intertwined with its relatively ‘soft’ rock formations and its limestone caves. Early Christians turned caves and pre-existing catacombs into chapels that could accommodate a growing community of believers, resulting in a series of churches which appear to have formed naturally out of the beautiful Maltese underground landscape. As explained by Dr. Charlene Vella to the website Guidememalta.com, (the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta), cave churches also took a symbolic meaning as they were seen as a “figuration of the Entombment and Resurrection” of Jesus Christ.

Known as troglodyte churches, from the Greek word τρωγλοδύτης (troglodýtis) trogledyein (trogle: “hole” or “cave” and dyein: “get into”), cave churches are one of the most interesting architectural developments in the history of Christian culture. Part rock, part sculpture, they contain elements that display the fine skills of local sculptors and artists. While other cave churches have appeared across the Mediterranean, from Southern Italy to France and Egypt, Maltese cave churches are unique for the quality of their finely decorated interiors, featuring limestone carvings and colourful murals. The way functional elements were hewn out of raw rocks is simply impressive. Many features could be carved out of limestone, while natural protrusions were carved to make “natural” seating and altars.

Often, it was hermit-monks who discovered suitable natural enclaves for prayer and meditation which were later used by Christians as places of worship. Sometimes, when local parish communities experienced fast growth, cave churches were annexed to existing catacombs built by the early Christian community way back, when Christian burials were not allowed within the city walls.

Following is a list of the most interesting cave churches, developed in Malta from the 4th century to the 15th century AD. This list is not exhaustive, as there are other existing cave churches, and others which are documented but unfortunately have been completely lost. Also, it is beyond doubt that in Malta and Gozo there are several other cavern churches buried under the ground or hewn deep in the hill sides of our steep valleys. Our rock formations are mostly of globigerina limestone, soft and easy to burrow, and caves and caverns are common in such geological environment. To unearth or discover some of these is a long and arduous task. However, we have faith that in the future more cave churches and subterranean treasures will be discovered.

We would like to thank Prof. Stanley Fiorini who patiently and kindly assisted us to write this article

1.- St. Agatha’s crypt church.

In an area of modern Rabat, one finds a network of Early Christian Catacombs called the St. Agatha Complex. Local tradition has it that during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajanus Decius (AD 249-251), Agatha, together with some of her friends, fled from her native land of Sicily and took refuge in Malta.  The underground crypt-church of St. Agatha is hewn in live rock. It is an underground basilica which was venerated by the Maltese since Antiquity. At the time of St. Agatha’s stay, the crypt was a small natural cave, which during the 4th or 5th century was enlarged and embellished. The cave church is the perfect example of Maltese cave churches’ development. First built as a place of worship out of a small natural cave, it later came to engulf the nearby catacomb, also dedicated to St. Agatha, in order to accommodate a larger number of believers. The altar dedicated to Saint Agatha, at the far end, was in use until at least AD 1647. This cave church stands out because of the number of colourful mural paintings dating as far back as the 12th  century. Of the 30 images painted on the cave walls, 13 represent Saint Agatha while the rest represent bishops, saints, martyrs and the Virgin Mary.

Saint Agatha’s Crypt – Courtesy of Saint Agatha’s complex, Rabat.

One of the chambers of these Christian catacombs seems to be their Sancta Sanctorum. This primitive chapel is decorated with a 4th century fresco representing a scallop shell painted in various colours. It symbolizes the source of life, that is God. In the middle there is a cross with the Greek letter “R” (rho) with a horizontal line passing through its middle, an artistic variation of the Greek letter “X” (chi), which signifies Christ. On both ends of the horizontal line, there are the alpha (α) and omega (ω). The fresco also has flowers on both sides, and a dove with leaves or flowers in its claws. Being the best-preserved fresco from the earliest age of Malta’s Christian age existing in the Catacombs, the fresco underwent restoration in the year 2000 by Mr. George Farrugia from the art conservation department before Heritage Malta was established in 2004. Unfortunately, certain parts were completely destroyed and could not be recovered

The Fourth Century Fresco – Courtesy of Saint Agatha’s complex, Rabat

St. Agatha’s Crypt, Catacombs & Museum. St. Agatha’s Catacombs, Rabat, Malta(accessed in December 2020 and January 2021)

2.- Abbatija tad-Dejr.

The Abbatija tad-Dejr in Rabat consists of four hypogea tunneled next to each other in the rock face. This location got its name from a nunnery (Abbatija) which acquired the land of this site sometime after the  15th century. Dejr normally means a Christian monastic setting. So, most probably a monastic community at this site does not precede the 15th century. Nevertheless, the strong links between the Maltese cultural identity and Christianity is evidenced in these catacombs, with the earliest archaeological evidence of Christian burial rites dating back to the 3rd or 4th  century. Indeed, remains of an early Christian church have also been excavated at the side of the Tad-Dejr catacombs. Most probably this catacombs and church complex might be the latest to be excavated, that is, during the transition phase from underground to above-ground.

Abbatija tad-Dejr – The Baldacchino tombs creating intricate corridors and pathways | Courtesy of Heritage Malta

The remaining architectural motifs which used to decorate it, such as the palm fronds and the scallop shells (symbolizing victory over death), a Christian monogram and symbol formed from the first two letters – “X” and “P” – of the Greek word for “Christ”, and the fish-scale decoration, all indicate Christian beliefs. A painting showing the Archangel Michael was also found, however, only the halo and the red border that framed the picture survive.

Eight incised crosses, of the Greek and Latin rite, filled with red paint, can still be seen. An apsed niche with two figures in a Siculo-Byzantine style (also with traces of red paint), possibly dating back to the early 14th century, can also be seen. The figure in the centre is the haloed head of a saint, possibly a monk, while in the left-hand corner Christ is depicted giving a blessing. The portico at the back of the vestibule leads to an impressive hall with 16 free-standing Baldacchino tombs (tombs consisting of a platform with a canopy reaching up to the ceiling) organized in rows creating a composite of narrow passages. Tad-Dejr contains numerous other ancient artefacts, including a painting that was found in the carved niche, which shows three figures: a Crucifixion in the middle with the Virgin Mary on one side and the Archangel Gabriel on the other.

Fish Scale architectural motifs – Courtesy of Martha Borg

The Abbatija Tad-Dejr Hypogea. Article by Heritage Malta and Din l-Art Helwa. Published on The Malta Independent on 31 May 2006. (accessed in December 2020 and January 2021)

3.- Nativity of Our Lady – Sanctuary of the Virgin, Mellieħa.

The cave church in the Malta National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Melliehastands out from the others because it holds a wall painting of the Virgin Mary called Hodegetria (the Virgin who shows the way). The Rollo document of AD 1436, of Bishop De Mello,  clearly states that a parish already existed in Mellieħa. This Sanctuary was visited by Pope St. John Paul II during his visit in 1990. It is very probable that Christian practice, on this site and the cave church, vastly predates the present 13th century fresco. A tradition maintains that in AD 409, a number of Catholic Bishops visited the hallowed grotto and consecrated it as a Church. Indeed, the ceiling mural (which can be seen in the accompanying image) is a late depiction of this event. This would have been very close to the Council of Ephesus of AD 431 when the Blessed Virgin was universally recognized and acclaimed as Theotokos, (Birth-giver of Christ God – Mater Dei in Latin). An interesting fact is that after Ottoman corsairs attacked the church, causing damage to the Hodegetria painting, the whole mural was covered with silver, apart from the faces of Mary and the Child Jesus. It was only thanks to scientific restoration in 1950, that art historians and expert art restorers were able to uncover the rest of the painting.

The cave church of the Mellieħa National Marian Shrine. The Hodegetria can be seen above the altar, and part of the ceiling mural depicting the Bishops can also be seen | Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta

Between 2013 and 2016 further restoration was carried out by Atelier del Restauro, in order to preserve the Holy Icon for posterity. Another grotto forms part of the complex of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa. It consists of a chapel hewn in the 17th century out of the hard, brownish limestone– a dream come true of a Sicilian devotee of Our Lady, Mario de Vasi, who was a regular visitor to the Mellieħa Sanctuary. It is located across the street from the Church of Our Lady of Victory, adjacent to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Mellieħa. To fulfil his life-long wish, de Vasi later erected a white statue, of Our Lady holding the Holy Infant Jesus on her left arm, at the far end of the chapel. Over the years thousands of pilgrims visited the underground Shrine and prayed before the Madonna, attributing to her many miraculous interventions and healings, spiritual and temporal.

The underground grotto church hewn in the 17th century by Mario de Vasi | Alamy

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Mellieħa, The Archdiocese of Malta.

Lupo V. and Zenzani M.G. The Icon of Our Lady of Mellieħa: A Journey through the multi-disciplinary conservation project (Aletier del Restauro Ltd.). Treasures of Malta No. 67 Christmas 2016, Volume 23, Issue 1.

Muscat J., Il-Madonna tal-Għar – The subterranean crypt at Mellieħa, Times of Malta, 19th September, 2017 

4.- The Church of St. Helen.

In Bormla (orBurmula, deriving from Bir Mula, which means [the] well of the Lord) there is a partially troglodytic church, which goes back to at least the 7th century. Bormla is an ancient city in the south east of Malta known also as Città Cospicua (meaning conspicuous city). In this church, a Latin inscription survives and a Greek inscription that once was inscribed around the pediment of the church has been destroyed. The church had survived the Turkish siege of 1565, but succumbed to the ravages of time, with World War II giving it its coup de grâce. However, the troglodytic part of the church survived, namely the chancel and apse, and preserves a partly damaged Latin inscription asserting the Madonna’s divine motherhood.

Gian Antonio’s description of the Greek inscription.
| Courtesy of Prof. Stanely Fiorini

It was originally dedicated to St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, but this Nativity title of the Virgin suggests a Marian re-dedication of the church. Nevertheless, the pre-Muslim church preserved its Byzantine Helenian ties when it acquired a Latin Marian dedication. Fortunately, the Greek inscription was recorded in Gian Antonio Ċiantar’s Malta Illustrata (1772). It is important to keep clearly in mind that what survived of the inscription, is what Ċiantar saw and interpreted, namely a Greek inscription in triangular format. He also comments that what he saw was damaged by the ravages of time. However, Prof. Stanley Fiorini recently studied and identified some anomalies in Ċiantar’s interpretation. The result of his analysis is the following reconstruction:

Ω ΥΠEPΠΛ]OΥΣІΕ. ΥΠEPΘE[N] KAI ΥΠ[E]PAΓAΘE.

TΩN X[ΞΓ].
[EΥ]AIΩN. EΥΦOPE ΘEΩ EΥΣEB[E]IAΣ. H Θ[E]NE HMAΣ E[Ξ]ENOΣA IK[H]AI
OΥΣ OΥTH. EKΓΛAΨ[OME]ΘA ΣOΥ. ANAΣTAΣE[Ω]Σ [Λ]ΥΘ[Ω]ME[N META] ΘAN[AT]ON.

The English translation would read: “Oh Thou heavenly exceedingly provident and transcendentally good… {In the year 663}… Oh blessed, patient [God], behold [our] acts of piety rather than chastise us – I have been exiled as you saw fitting – turn a listening ear to my pleadings that we may emerge, by virtue of your resurrection, we may be saved [after] death”.

Prof. Fiorini says that if we accept the proposed date and translation, then we have a clue who the author is. From time immemorial, Malta and Gozo have been used as a place of exile for criminals and other undesirable elements of various societies. The earliest of these seems to be linked to the Bormla inscription. In the year AD 637, Patriarch Nicephoros of Constantinople records in his Historia Syntomos, how Emperor Heraclius’ son Atalarich, and his companion Theodorus, son of Theodorus, the Emperor’s brother, intended to conspire against him, for which alleged crime the Emperor had their noses and hands cut off. He sent Atalarich in exile on the island of Principus, but sent his own nephew Theodorus to Gaudomelete (Malta of Gozo) with orders to the dux of the island to amputate one of his legs on arrival. Prof. Fiorini adds that if the identification is correct, then the inscription was made by Theodorus, after some score of years in exile.

The Latin inscription P… MATER VIRGO GENVI… above the apse and beneath the cornice.
The oval depressions on either side were probably intended to contain a medallion | Courtesy of Prof. Stanley Fiorini

He also highlights that not any ole’ Tom, Dick and Harry in 7th century Malta would have been responsible for having a prayer or dedication in Greek sculpted on a church pediment. Being the former Emperor’s own nephew, he was a sufficiently important person  to be able to carry out the enterprise which may have consisted not only in erecting the inscription but also in establishing the church of St Helen. The dedication of the church to St Helen (Emperor Constantine’s mother) is also very appropriate.

Fiorini S. A Reconstruction of the Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the Church of St. Helen, Bormla. Melita Historica. Special Edition, 2020

5.- St. Peter’s and St. Brancatus’s (Għar San Pietru and Għar San Brinkat) cave-churches.

The settlement of Ġebel Pietru (The Hill of Peter), at the limits of Naxxar and Għargħur, is made up of two caves. The smaller one may be identified as the rock-cut church of St. Peter. This cave church was probably used by the troglodytic inhabitants of the desolate countryside of the Great Fault. This cave church is mentioned by Mgr. Pietro Dusina’s in his Apostolic visit in AD 1575, when bread and food was given to the poor who congregated for Mass. This oval-shaped cave church hosts some classic elements of cave church architecture such as a rock-cut bench and a shallow altar-recess cut out of limestone. The presence of stucco on the walls suggests that the walls once contained murals.

Entrance to St. Peter’s cave church in Gebel San Pietru (St. Peter’s hill)
| Courtesy of Martha Borg

St. Brancatus cave (also known as Għar San Brinkat and San Brancat) is considerably a short distance away from Għar San Pietru (St. Peter’s cave), in the Għargħur area.The two caves share a common environment, and they both may have been centres of Siculo-Greek monasticism.Brancato may refer to Pancratius of Taormina, who was a disciple of St. Peter. He is said to have suffered martyrdom in Sicily, where his cult was revived during the Norman period. This hidden cave church can be reached by a naturally sloping ramp cut out of limestone. After the entrance, on the left, there is an oval basin used as a holy fountain, believed to contain water with miraculous and healing powers. There is also a depression in the ground, which might have been created as a symbol of the grave.

Entrance to St. Brancatus cave church | Courtesy of Martha Borg

Borg M. The Cave Churches in Malta and their Paintings: An Art Historical Gazetteer. Dissertation for a Degree of Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in History of Art. (Faculty of Arts. University of Malta). June 2014

6.- St. Nicholas Cave (Għar San Niklaw).

The San Niklaw troglodytic settlement is c. 180 meters above sea level, and entrenched in the sides of Mellieħa Ridge, overlooking Ghadira Valley and Marfa Ridge. It seems that St. Nicholas cave church is the one mentioned by Mgr. Pietro Dusina in his 1575 Pastoral visitations. The cave and the area took their name from the Beneficio di SNicolao della Mellecha, a small chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, mentioned in a 1436 document containing episcopal notes. The relative inaccessibility of the large cave has aided its preservation, and a substantial portion of the rubble walling has survived, showing how the cave was divided into separate areas in an already confined space.

St. Nicholas cave entrenched in the ridge | Courtesy of Martha Borg

This system of dry-walling also separated the cave-church from the dwelling siteThe largest cave was used for human and animal habitation. To the right is a half-apsed rock wall enclosed by a rubble wall. The rock wall of this cave-church was plastered with a pinkish stucco on which murals were painted. Unfortunately, due to the flaking nature of the rock, only small traces of stucco and paint survived. Traces of paint applied to the stucco can still be seen in the upper left-hand side of the cave entrance. They consist of a red ochre line measuring 3 x 7cm (1.2 x 2.6 inches), which formed part of the framing band of an icon. Conspicuous traces of painting are also on the rock wall, opposite the entrance to the church. Most probably these traces formed part of small icons of saints, painted side by side and framed in a border of dark red pigment.

Partly walled section of the cave used as a church | Courtesy of Martha Borg

Buhagiar K. The San Niklaw Cave-Settlement. Melita Historica – new series (accessed in January 2021)

Messina A. Trogloditismo Medievale a Malta. Melita Historica (accessed in January 2021)

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