This article is co-authored by Rev. Dr. Jonathan Farrugia B.A. (Hons.), S.Th.B., S.Th.L., S.Th.D (Aug.), and Jean Pierre Fava Dip., B.Sc. (Hons.), M.Sc. H.Sc., Manager of Faith Tourism within the Malta Tourism Authority. Rev. Dr. Farrugia is a Canon of the Senglea Collegiate Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lady, lecturer at the Department of Church History, Patrology and Paleochristian Archaeology, and course coordinator of the B.A. Theology and Human Studies at the University of Malta (UoM)
The parish church of Senglea, a city in the southeast of Malta, is dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Greek Orthodox Church goes back to, at least the 6th century, probably after the Council of Ephesus (431). This feast was introduced into Western Christendom by the Byzantines, and by the 7th century, it was celebrated in Rome.
In Malta, Byzantine influence reached its zenith from the 4th to the 8th century, so there is a very good possibility that the Nativity of Mary was already celebrated during this period.
Throughout history, Senglea’s parish and the community had a strong devotion to St. Joseph. As we will see later, the church was built (and completed in 1580) right after the victory of Great Siege of 1565, as thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At some point this devotion started to fade away due to various circumstances. However, an embellishment project of the parish church, inaugurated last February, clearly shows that the devotion to the Patron of the Universal Church is still deeply rooted in Senglea’s heart!
Centuries of devotion to St. Joseph
The first clear reference to devotion to St. Joseph in the parish is in a description of the church made in 1594, where an altar is mentioned, and in a 1602 report, the first altar that is mentioned after the main altar is Saint Joseph’s. Its titular painting represented the saint with the Infant Jesus. The major benefactor to this altar was Guzeppi Gandolfo, whose work led to the founding of the Confraternity of Saint Joseph. Thanks to Gandolfo’s zeal, the Senglean carpenters soon came to love this altar, and indeed took it under their care. After few years a fraternity under the Nazarene carpenter’s protection was founded by the chaplain, Fr. Frangisku Azzopardi.
This and other fraternities were almost annihilated by the plague of 1675-1676, which took the lives of 1885 Sengleans, so for several years, meetings, processions and devotions came to a halt. But records (1679-1686) indicate that by 1686, the disastrous scenario caused by the plague radically changed. Indeed, it transpires that this fraternity was considered to be patronized by those with most means; annual contributions by its members were threefold more than those of other fraternities. Nonetheless, by 1739, the fraternity had lost its prominence, and kept regressing for some time. For instance, when the parish became a collegiate in 1786, only five fraternities were mentioned, and that of St. Joseph was not one of them. However, in following century, the fraternity seems to have begun to revive. An 1805 record sheds some light on this, referring to the altar’s painting and other artefacts related to St. Joseph. It also mentions relics of the saint kept on one of the other altars, that of Our Lady of Charity. Also, 1883 annotations of the archpriest clearly indicate the new energy the fraternity was enjoying at the time: “…. The Fraternity has many young people brimming with zeal.” Towards the end of the 19th century, the fraternity went through a beautiful period in which there was no shortage of occasions to give honor to St. Joseph.
Two feasts were held on the altar, the main one on the 19th of March, and another in July – the agony of St. Joseph; and by 1739, a third, to commemorate the Patronage of St. Joseph, held on the fourth Wednesday after Easter. The first documented reference to a processional statue is a 1715 inventory. In 1879, another statue was ordered from Glormu Darmanin, a statuary from Senglea who had worked on seven other St. Joseph statues for various churches in Malta. During the 19th century devotion to St. Joseph and his feast were growing. In 1895, a special feast was also held to commemorate the 25th anniversary since he was declared Patron Saint of the Church. Over time, the feast of the Agony faded away, while that of the Patronage flourished.
The altar suffered some damage in the first bombing Senglea during the Blitz on the 16th of January 1941, but it kept its place when the basilica was rebuilt after the war. However, after the war, all feasts connected to fraternities lost their popularity, except for that Our Lady of the Rosary. When the construction of today’s basilica was completed in 1957, this matter was discussed by the Chapter, where it was noted that attendance in these feasts became negligible. From there the Festa regressed further until it was celebrated no more. The last time the statue was brought out in a procession was in 1968.
The church – a memorial for Child Mary’s Victory
On May 18, 1565, an armada of over 200 warships was sighted off Malta. An invading Ottoman force estimated to be 30,000 strong landed, and soon The Great Siege began. However, the Knights of St. John and the Maltese prevailed against all odds. On the 8th of September, 1565, the hitherto invincible Ottomans abandoned the siege, accepted defeat and sailed back home. This day happened to be the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Nativity. Maltese piety was quick to identify the trail of divine providence that occurred and attributed it to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Even Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette himself didn’t believe this was a coincidence! In fact, during the heroic struggle to defend the Holy Faith and Western Christendom, he found spiritual solace and prayed for guidance before the 12th-century Byzantine icon known as Damaskinì (Our Lady of Damascus or La Damascena), at the time in Birgu. On the lifting of the Siege, la Valette laid down his hat and his sword on the altar steps as votive offerings to show his gratitude and thanksgiving to Our Lady for delivering him, the defenders and the whole of Western Christendom from the invading Ottomans.
Senglea took the title of Città Invicta (Undefeated City), and a church was erected in honour of the Virgin’s Birth and Our Lady of Victory, as a memorial of her intercession in this memorable triumph. The titular statue is carved on a dainty, almost miniature scale, its origin going back to 1618. Owing to its small size, the statue became widely known as Maria Bambina (Child Mary). The Basilica is also the home of the miraculous statue of Christ the Redeemer. The parish was raised to collegiate church in 1786 by Pope Pius VI. On the 3rd of January 1921, Pope Benedict XV, elevated it to minor basilica; and on the September 4 of the same year Maria Bambina was crowned, making it the first statue to be crowned in Malta.
It was the only statue to be solemnly crowned by a special decree issued by the Holy See. The prompt response from Rome, after the application submitted to the Vatican in 1920, astonished all concerned. In fact, in a letter the diocesan secretary wrote to the Archpriest of Senglea, saying:
“I remained surprised how this petition was approved in such a short time, and it came to be as we all wished. This is truly a sign that the Blessed Virgin wants to compensate the people of Senglea for their love towards her.” The Holy See’s decree was an exaltation of the devotion and extraordinary events surrounding Maria Bambina. For instance, the decree said,“…in the collegiate church and parish of the city of Senglea in your diocese, there is a statue of Our Blessed Virgin Mary, well known for the miracles and graces received by those seeking her intercession….”
The Bambina, St. Joseph and Senglea are still one
The embellishment of the parish’s ceiling with frescoes has always been every Senglean’s dream, but it proved to be quite a difficult task from day one of the project. In fact, it was only very recently that the city’s dream became a reality
In 1934, the artist Gużeppi Briffa painted the choir’s frescoes, which was considered his best work of the kind, but unfortunately, this and other works of art were lost during the Second World War, when most of the church was bombed out. In 1981, Giuseppe, now 80 years old, was commissioned again to paint the frescoes of dome and lunettes. He completed the drafts, but sadly in 1984, he fell ill and never recovered.
In 1988, another project was launched. This time it was Frank Portelli who was commissioned for the job. Today, we can still appreciate Portelli’s work on the apse, lunettes and the dome’s interior. The plan was to complete the choir and the whole ceiling; however, this artist was struck by sickness too. and the dream of Sengleans was again shattered.
In 2020, the chapter and administration of the basilica, under the leadership of Archpriest Can. Chev. Robin Camilleri, commissioned the prodigious Maltese artist Manuel Farrugia to embellish the church’s entire ceiling with his luminous art, focusing on Marian themes. On the 12th of June 2021, the first phase was inaugurated – the choir frescoes — and on the 18th of February 2023, His Grace Mgr. Archbishop Charles Jude Scicluna inaugurated the second phase, the central theme being Salus Infermorum, which captures Our Lady’s help during illness – the Blessed Virgin’s intercession in the glorious history of Senglea, including the recent COVID 19 pandemic.
However, there is another central figure in these paintings – the Blessed Virgin’s spouse and protector. The two new biblical scenes commissioned for the vault of the transept dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, in fact, show two episodes in which St. Joseph was co-protagonist with baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Given that the transept’s main altar is dedicated to the grieving Mother, the Painting Commission agreed that the two new paintings must represent two sorrows of Mary, and thus two episodes linked to the early days of Jesus and to Mary’s sorrows were chosen. These are the presentation of Baby Jesus in the temple and the flight to Egypt.
In these two episodes we notice a detail introduced by the artist that will remain consistently present in the rest of the paintings that will decorate this basilica: the figure of Christ is always shown emitting a bright glow, as a baby (as He appears in the two scenes) as well as an adult as He appears in the apse. The other figures are shown reflecting the light emanating from Christ.
In the presentation scene we see the central figures who are Simeon and Anna with the baby in their arms. In the initial sketch Anna was represented as on her knees worshiping the child, but after some deliberation the Commission agreed that in the final version she should appear standing beside Simeon, and sharing the same look of heavenly joy because she was equally a prophetess and like him had the privilege of seeing the Messiah before her death. In the two standing figures of these two old people the aim was to emphasize the equality of men and women in the service of the Church and also in the absence of any distinction between the testimony that both men and women can give in the community. Beside them we see Mary and Joseph with the offering of the two doves looking in awe. Joseph can be seen in profile, embracing Mary with one hand and holding the dove-offerings in the other, wearing a light brown tunic, sandals in his feet and a brown kippah in his head.
In the background there are the priests and their collaborators looking thoughtful and almost worried at what they were witnessing and hearing … probably at Simeon’s words “Behold this One will bring the downfall and rise of many in Israel; He will be a sign that will be spoken against, in order to reveal the hidden thoughts in the hearts of many.” The most beautiful detail introduced by the artist is that of a little boy with his mother pointing a finger at the child bathed in light. It seems that of all those present, only the little boy was enchanted by that scene, only he saw the glow coming out of the face of the baby, because to him and those like him belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.
The other episode is the flight to Egypt in the traditional representation of Joseph pulling the donkey on which is riding Mary holding the Baby. Once more the Baby emanates a radiance that lights up Mary’s face. The figure of Joseph is the most striking in this scene, and he completely dominates the drama. He is looking at the heavens – remembering the words he heard from the angel in a dream to escape to Egypt to save the boy. In the background we see the Egyptian landscape with the pyramids and the great Sphinx of Giza, and some palm trees typical of a sandy terrain where water is scarce. The correct historical rendering in this scene is remarkable even in the tiniest of details. Here the Holy Family is represented as a typical Jewish family in the style of their dress as well as in other details such as the curly locks of hair hanging down Joseph’s cheeks typical of orthodox Jewish men observant of tradition. Another detail that emerges from this scene is the departure from the probably mistaken traditional iconography that portrays Joseph as an old man. Here we see Joseph as a young man in the fullness of life of the same age as his wife Mary, a handsome man fitting for her who was beautiful in the eyes of God, ready to face with courage and determination every challenge presented to him by the mystery linked to his loved one.
A community that creates beauty
As one can see, Senglea and the Marian devotion are almost inseparable, and here, one has to put the devotion to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, in perspective. If the Church and we honor the Blessed Virgin as the Theotokos — the God Bearer — it follows that we also have to honor Joseph, ‘the just man,’ as the protector of the Theotokos and ‘the God Raiser’ because it was he who helped Mary to raise the Holy Infant.
Perhaps, the Sengleans who centuries ago wanted to express their devotion to St. Joseph in works of art and in confraternities, realized the central part the saint played in the life of our Savior. When referring to the Sengleans, in his inaugural speech on the second phase of the new ceiling paintings, the Archbishop of Malta said that this project is “…a sign of a community that gathers together and creates beauty.”
Marija Bambina – Mitt Sena Inkurunata 1921 – 2021 (Maria Bambina – A Hundred Years Crowned). Parish Church of Marija Bambina, Senglea. Malta 2021
Mangion F. Senglea’s statue of Maria Bambina. Times of Malta, September 6, 2015
Mangion F. Statue of Maria Bambina in Senglea crowned a century ago. Times of Malta, September 5, 2021
Farrugia J. Id-devozzjoni lejn San Guzepp fl-Isla (Devotion to Saint Joseph in Senglea)
Press call – Senglea Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 18th of February 2023