This article is written by Dr. Mark Agius, Rector of the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Valletta, and Jean Pierre Fava, manager of faith tourism within the Malta Tourism Authority.
One of the most widespread Marian devotions in the Maltese Islands is to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The Houses of the Carmelite Friars and the Discalced Carmelites formed the central nuclei for the promotion of all forms of devotions related to the Madonna of Mount Carmel. The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was instituted by the Carmelites within their order between 1376 and 1386 to celebrate the victory achieved by their order on obtaining the approbation of its name and constitution from Honorius III on January 30, 1226.
The feast was celebrated on July 16, to commemorate the apparition of the Blessed Virgin to St. Simon Stock, which received the approval of Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
Moreover, the Sacred Congregation of Rites, at the request of the Queen of Spain, on November 21, 1674, extended its celebration to all countries under Spanish rule. This same concession was granted in 1679 to the Hapsburg Empire and the Kingdom of Portugal. On September 24, 1726, it was extended to the entire Latin Church by Benedict XIII.
The Carmelites in Malta and the Valletta Basilica
The Carmelites first came to Malta from Sicily in 1418, and they settled in the church of the Annunciation in the countryside on the outskirts of the ancient capital of Mdina, in an area outside Rabat called Lunzjata (derivative of Annunzjata – Annunciation in Maltese).
Afterwards, priories were opened in Valletta, Vittoriosa, Mdina, Balluta-Sliema, Santa Venera, Fgura and Fleur-de-lys. The Carmelites became well known throughout the Island by means of a customary procession held on the feast of the Annunciation. The Chapter of the Mdina Cathedral would proceed to the Lunzjata Carmelite Church outside Rabat, and droves of people from all over the island joined the celebrations.
The Carmelites were the first Friars to build a church in the new city of Valletta, in 1586, which increased their popularity. This church eventually became the main shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The first Valletta shrine was badly damaged by arial bombardment during the Second World War, so it was rebuilt as a monumental church that still dominates the Valletta and Grand Harbour’s skyline – today’s Basilica.
A mother’s tender care, through her Son
The unique titular painting of the Basilica depicts Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who gives the scapular to St. Simon Stock, and comforts the Holy Souls in Purgatory with her milk, which is expressed from her breasts by Baby Jesus, whom she holds in her arms.
The author of the painting is anonymous. It was probably brought from Sicily, since the Maltese monasteries originally belonged to the Sicilian Province. It was crowned by the Vatican Chapter in 1881, the first painting to be crowned by the Vatican in the Maltese Islands.
Two great saints, a thousand years apart
Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock in Cambridge, England, on July 16, 1251, at a time when the Carmelite Order was being oppressed. The Virgin Mary appeared holding the brown scapular in one hand, saying:
“Receive, my beloved son, this scapular of thy Order; it is the special sign of my favor, which I have obtained for thee and for thy children of Mount Carmel. He who dies clothed with this habit shall be preserved from eternal fire. It is the badge of salvation, a shield in time of danger, and a pledge of special peace and protection.”
This painting also portrays St. Agatha, one of the patron saints of Malta. As tradition has it, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajanus Decius (AD 249-251), Agatha fled from her native land of Sicily and took refuge in Malta. Indeed, in an area of Rabat, one finds a network of Early Christian Catacombs and a cave church named after the saint.
When Agatha returned to Sicily she faced her martyrdom. The very young and notably beautiful Agatha dedicated her life to God and became a consecrated virgin. That did not stop men from desiring her. An important man, Quintianus, thought he could force her to turn away from her vow and convince her to marry, but Agatha rejected his persistent proposals. Knowing she was a Christian, he had her arrested and brought before the judge – himself. He expected her to give in to his demands with torture and possible death, but she simply reaffirmed her belief in God. Quintianus had her imprisoned in a brothel, and ordered her to be viciously tortured. Noticing Agatha was enduring all kinds of torture with a sense of joyfulness, he commanded something worse. He ordered that her breasts be cut off, and sent her back to prison with no food or medical attention. But she was miraculously healed. After days of further torture Agatha prayed for her death, and is believed to have passed into Heaven around the year 251.
The crypt-church of St. Agatha in Rabat is an underground basilica which was venerated by the Maltese since Antiquity. 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. This complex stands out because of the number of colorful mural paintings dating back to the 4th and 12th centuries. Of the 30 images painted on the cave walls, 13 represent St. Agatha, while the rest represent the Virgin Mary, bishops, saints and martyrs. The Sancta Sanctorum of the catacombs is decorated with a 4th-century fresco representing a scallop shell. It symbolizes the source of life, that is God.
There are two other human figures who have been partially removed from the picture. These are an unknown man, on the side of St. Simon, and a female saint, perhaps St. Lucy, beside St. Agatha.
A singular painting
Reasonably, the most prominent figure of the titular painting is that of the Virgin Mary. She emanates from the golden glow of heaven. A white cloud opens like a theater curtain to let the Blessed Virgin Mary through. Mary sits on a royal throne. She holds Baby Jesus, whose nakedness emphasizes the Humanity of Christ. A unique feature of this image is that Jesus expresses milk from his Mother’s breast.
We have searched all images of the Virgin Mary that have been crowned by the Vatican Chapter and are available as images on the internet, and in none of these images except this one is Jesus seen expressing milk from his Mother’s breast! We have also examined many Marian icons of the Orthodox Church found on the internet, and have found none in which Christ is performing this action. Therefore this painting has a unique iconography.
The theological symbolism is clear: Jesus wishes that we should receive graces through his mother, and this includes the relief of the souls in Purgatory. The expressed milk trickles down to refresh the souls in Purgatory, a reference to the commitment of Our Lady to help those souls as referred to by the Sabbatine Bull. However, Mary is separated from the Souls in Purgatory by a cloud, which means that the painting was painted after 1613, in which year the Inquisition had decreed that Mary should not be depicted in purgatory, but on a cloud above it.
Mary’s presentation of the scapular reminds us that when Mary clothes us with the scapular she clothes us with her life and protects us with her example and her intercession during our journey in following Jesus, until we achieve perfect love of God and like her we see Him face to face in the glory of Heaven.
The cloud on which Mary’s throne rests is reminiscent of the cloud that Elijah saw rising from the sea and raining on the land which had been dry and parched after three years of drought, and which reminds Carmelites of the grace of Christ refreshing mankind as rain falls on a dry land. Mary sits on her throne, and below her feet is the moon, showing her to be the New Woman of the Apocalypse. A crown is held over her by two angels. She is Queen of Heaven and Earth. One angel represents God, who is Lord of everything and everyone, while the other angel represents the spiritual and civil leaders of the world.
The crowned titular painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel provides the focus of the Wednesdays known as the Erbgħat Tal-Udienza (Wednesdays of the Audience), and indeed for all the ceremonies in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel held in the Basilica. It clearly depicts Our Lady as Queen, giving audience to her devotees. She clearly offers the habit of her Order — the Scapular — to the devotees as a sign of their commitment to Her, and as a sign of salvation. By the symbolism in which the scapular appears to touch a church similar to the Naples Carmine Maggiore, the “home” of the Madonna Bruna, it suggests to the friars a link with the Wednesdays of Our Lady, which originated around the Madonna Bruna, and thence with the ancient devotion to the Joys of Our Lady. Therefore, it represents a link between the Joys of Our Lady and the scapular. I [Mark Agius] have elsewhere argued that the Joys of Our Lady represented a way of contemplating important events in the life of Christ, from which developed the contemplation of the mysteries of the Rosary.
Taken together, all the symbology of this painting appears to represent the relationship between the Carmelites of the Sicilian Provence (Of Saint Angelus) of which the Maltese Province formed a part and their faith in Mary as their Queen, Mother and Sister during the 17th century.
A final note
This distinctive painting is a wonderful commentary on Carmelite devotion to Our Lady. Many tourists visit the Basilica in Valletta, whose dome dominates the skyline of the city, but few of them stand and pray before the Holy Image of Our Lady. For the local Maltese, on the other hand, it is an object of great devotion. It needs to be better known.
Dr. Mark Agius is the Rector of the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Valletta. He is also a medical doctor, and practiced as a G.P., an Associate Specialist Psychiatrist and Clare Research Associate in Clare College Cambridge. Dr. Agius has retired from all medical practice and research.
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