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The three great cathedrals in the middle of the Mediterranean


Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

MTA - Malta Tourism Authority - published on 10/22/21

In Malta, there are enough chapels and churches for you to attend Mass in a different one almost every day for year. But the three main cathedrals occupy a special place.

The Book of Acts states that, on his way to trial in Rome in the year 60, Paul was shipwrecked off the northwestern coast of Malta and spent the harsh, unnavigable winter months there. During his stay, he converted the island’s governor, Publius (Malta’s first bishop and first saint), healed the sick, and won souls for Christ, establishing the very roots of Maltese Christianity. Luke tells the story as follows, in Acts 28:

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.  Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

Since then — and to this day — the Maltese are among the most passionate Catholics in the world. With an uninterrupted two-millennia-long tradition of rich Christian heritage (the Maltese Christian community is as ancient as those of Ephesus, Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome, thanks to Paul’s providential shipwreck) it is only natural that the country has more than one church per square kilometer. In fact, there are enough chapels and churches in the archipelago for you to attend Mass in a different one, almost every day, for a whole year: a whopping 359 in total. Even the smallest of the islands of the Maltese archipelago, Comino (known for its remarkable crystal blue lagoons), has a chapel — for its five residents!

Leonardo De Agatiis’ Polyptych of Saint Paul, as displayed at the Wignacourt Museum. This is the museum of the Collegiate Basilica of Saint Paul, Rabat. The basilica is built on the famous Saint Paul’s grotto, the cave where tradition claims he resided during his stay in Malta – Courtesy of the Wignacourt Museum, Rabat, Malta

Most of these churches are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and some of them are known for being places where countless special, miraculous graces have been granted to many throughout the centuries. The many ex-votos covering one of the walls of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha for prayers answered — everything from handwritten notes to tiny baby clothes, and even a motorcycle helmet— confirm this is the case, and pilgrims travel in droves to either ask the Virgin for a special grace as much as to thank her for those already received. The next time you are planning a visit to a Marian sanctuary, make sure to consider the Madonna Tal-Ħerba in Birkirkara; the Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu National Shrine, in Gozo; or the ancient Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception of Qala, just to name three of the many magnificent Marian churches and shrines in the country. However, three other churches (the three main Maltese and Gozitan cathedrals) deserve special treatment: the great Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul, in Mdina; St. John’s Co-Cathedral, in Valletta; and the Cathedral of the Assumption, in Gozo.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina

The seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta (a function shared with St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta since the 19th century), the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul was founded in the 12th century, as attested by the first document actually mentioning the cathedral: the will of the Genoese Count of Malta, Guillelmus de Malta, dated in 1299. However, the history of the building (and that of the site itself) is much older. Tradition claims the cathedral is built on the very same place where governor Publius met St. Paul right after his shipwreck. Indeed, archaeologists have found the remains of a typical Roman domus (a palace-like house) in the crypt of the cathedral. Even though it is virtually impossible to claim that this was in fact Publius’ own house, the finding still somehow supports what tradition has always believed; namely, that the cathedral stands where the palace that belonged to St. Publius himself once stood. The great artworks of the Caravaggist Baroque artist Mattia Preti (a Calabrese maestro who was appointed as a Knight of the Order of Saint John) are witness to this tradition. In the cathedral, we find at least three of his great Pauline works:The conversion of Saint Paul, Saint Paul vanquishing the Ottomans, and The shipwreck of Saint Paul. The three of them are considered Baroque masterpieces in the tradition of Caravaggio — in fact, Preti was the apprentice of Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, who was in turn an apprentice of Caravaggio himself.

Medina Metropolitan Cathedral
The seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta (a function shared with St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta since the 19th century), the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Paul was founded in the 12th century.

The first cathedral ever built in Malta is said to have been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not surprising. The Blessed Virgin has always found an important place within the Maltese Christian traditions that some claim can be traced to Paul’s shipwreck itself, considering Paul was accompanied by Luke, and that Luke’s has been deemed the most Marian of all four Gospels (the core of some much later developed Marian doctrines can be found in it, through some bona-fide exegetical effort). Some claim it is even likely that Luke spoke to the Maltese about the Mother of the Savior, and that the early Christian community consequently grew its own forms of Marian devotion. Numerous early Marian shrines built around the archipelago suggest this might have been the case.

Moreover, Luke is traditionally credited with the authorship of the very first Marian image of Christianity. Eastern churches consider him as the original “iconographer,” responsible for “writing” the first icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Maltese traditions even held that the famous Hodegetria icon, preserved at the Mellieha National Marian Shrine, had been painted by Luke himself directly on the rock in the year 60, when he reached the island. However, recent assessment by art historians show that the present version of the icon dates to the 13th century.

Be that as it may, other sources explain the place has been a distinct sacred space since time immemorial, given the fact that the structure is built on a privileged place, dominating the citadel of the old capital city of Mdina (originally known as Maleth), in a particularly strategic place, à la the Athenian Acropolis. In fact, the original holy edifice (earlier than the Roman domus) is reminiscent of any of the classic Greek monuments we commonly associate with the Mediterranean.

Saying Mdina already had a cathedral in the 6th century is not at all inaccurate. Official ecclesial sources indicate that was the case. For example, in a letter dated in the year 598, we read Pope Gregory the Great explicitly giving the then-Bishop of Syracuse the order to exhort both the people and the clergy of Melite to elect a new bishop for themselves — the Byzantine Melite being then a province of Sicily. Nowadays, the cathedral is also home to a museum that holds numerous artifacts and works of arts from different eras, including a permanent exhibition of more than 70 woodcuts by Dürer.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

When compared to St. Paul’s, St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a relatively young church. But that does not make it any less impressive. The interior of the church is one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe, boasting impressive painted ceilings, carved walls and numerous side altars. In fact, the church itself is considered one the world’s great cathedrals.

The cathedral’s exceptional marbled floor is covered by nearly 400 tombstones of Knights and officers of the Order.

Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, it was built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the Conventual Church of St. John, and designed by the noted Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar — responsible for most of the more important buildings in the city.

Several different elements of the cathedral need to be highlighted. The first is the fact that this co-cathedral housed the famed icon of the Virgin of Philermos for centuries. In fact, a whole chapel was built to house this icon (also known as the Panagia Filevremou, Blessed Virgin of Philerme, and Black Madonna of Malta), which was brought over by the Knights of Saint John after they were expelled from Rhodes.

According to tradition, the icon had been brought to Rhodes by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. The Order of St. John considered two objects as its most holy relics – the Hand of St. John, a gift by the Turkish Sultan to the Grand Master at the fall of Jerusalem, and this icon, which the Knights considered as miraculous. Nowadays, the co-cathedral houses the noted Caraffa Madonna instead, which is carried in procession every year on the day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. The Caraffa Madonna was donated to the Conventual Church by the Prior Fra Girolamo Caraffa. Its original collocation was the tondo on top of Mattia Preti’s altarpiece of the Coronation of St. Catherine in the Chapel of the Italian Langue. It was only after the Madonna of Philermos was taken away in 1798 that the Caraffa Madonna was relocated to this chapel.

The Co-Cathedral houses the noted Caraffa Madonna, which is carried in procession every year on the day of the Immaculate Conception, the 8th of December. Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta | Photo by Ian Noel Pace

The second, the impressive Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, one of the most significant works of art of the European 17th century, occupies a privileged position as the altarpiece in the oratorio. It was painted by Caravaggio during his 15-month-long stay on the island. This Mannerist painting is not only the largest painting Caravaggio ever produced, but is regarded as the capolavoro (that is, the masterpiece) of his whole career. The cathedral is also home to Caravaggio’s Jerome Writing, and to the famous Triumph of the Eucharist collection of tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens. Moreover, Mattia Preti’s cycle of Saint John the Baptist (a series of paintings covering the vault and several different altars around the church) is another important addition to the magnificent collection of the cathedral.

The third is the cathedral’s exceptional marbled floor, covered by nearly 400 tombstones of Knights and officers of the Order. On each tombstone, one sees the crest, coat-of-arms and epitaph of each Knight. The earliest grave dates back to 1606, just 25 years after the church was opened.

Cathedral of the Assumption, Gozo

Devotional life in Malta has always given special prominence to the Assumption — she is the Patroness of the Maltese Islands. In fact, the Assumption has always been the most popular feast in the archipelago, and its devotion is widespread: up until the early 17th century, every single parish had at least one Assumption church, or at least an altar. Also, three of the oldest parishes in the Maltese Islands are dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin: that of Birkirkara (today’s Saint Helen’s Basilica), dated in 1402; the parish of Birmiftuħ (today’s Gudja), mentioned documents dated in 1436; and the the Matrix church within the Gozo’s Citadel. This third one is better known for being the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gozo since the formation of the diocese, backin 1864.

The titular statue of the Assumption, Patroness of the Maltese Islands, housed in the cathedral. Courtesy of VisitGozo 

The cathedral has a privileged location within the Citadella of Victoria, in Gozo. It also has a rather dramatic history, which reflects the many different eras of Maltese and Gozitan history at large.

As is often the case in the archipelago, the Cittadella was originally a pre-historic settlement, on which a Roman temple dedicated to Juno was eventually built. The remains of this early Roman temple are still part of the cathedral itself. As a result of the early Christianization of Malta and Gozo, the temple was converted into a church dedicated to the Theotokos, and a Byzantine-style church was built on top of it. This Byzantine church was, in turn, mostly destroyed during Arab rule, so a new church had to be built after the Expulsion. This new church was first sacked by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and then badly damaged during the famous earthquake of 1693. The Maltese were then forced to demolish this church, and built yet another one — this one designed by the noted Lorenzo Gafà and inaugurated in 1711. This is the church still standing today, the seat of the Diocese of Gozo since 1864.

The building itself is a decidedly Baroque structure, in the form of a Latin cross. A tall belfry with five bells at the back of the Cathedral replaces the two frontal bell towers that are more commonly found in this kind of architecture. A 1739 painting on the ceiling inside gives the impression of a dome, when in reality the roof of the cathedral is flat —a classic Baroque trompe l’oeil. This painting is such a masterpiece of perspective that sometimes it is hard to convince first-time visitors that there really is no dome.

A remarkable statue of Santa Marija Assunta (that is, the Assumption of Our Lady), which was made in Rome in 1897, is also housed in this cathedral. View the slideshow below to discover more details of these three great Mediterranean cathedrals.

This content has been brought to you in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority

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