Street niches and statuary
Fabian Mangion: Xbihat Qaddisa fit-Toroq tal-Isla (Sacred Street Images of Senglea), 2010, 71pp.
There have been many publications and studies of the niches and sacred images of the towns and villages of Malta, some of them simply contenting themselves with a photographic collection of extant examples before they disappear under the onslaught of the bulldozer.
This booklet by Senglean Fabian Mangion comes along with a difference. It records photographically the niches, statues and holy street images but also delves into a little anthropology, local history and social ramifications.
Mangion is not content with telling that such and such a niche exists, whether aesthetically beautiful or devotionally restricted, but goes into the human story around it, especially when it involves Senglea as such.
Many of the images and niches are related to the Second World War when Senglea was practically razed to the ground. The air attack on the Illustrious is well remembered as one of the blackest in Senglea’s history.
A foreword by Stanley Fiorini, prime historian, and proudly Senglean, rightly highlights the author’s religious interests, noting that these and the historical elements involved, together weave a tapestry of social relevance.
Mangion shows that the statues did not go up just for show or even for mere piety. They put in evidence the faith of the people along the challenging orders of the times.
They evince a willingness of Sengleans of all times to pass on to their descendants their experiences in joy and sadness, as Malta and their town adjusted to different fortunes and to the changing occupiers along the centuries.
The author provides plenty of pictorial record in black and white, dividing his material on Our Lady into two sections, one centred on the famed ‘Central Madonna’ (Madonna tan-Nofs) and the other on the Nativity Niche. Another section takes in Archangel Michael (how could any town go without that guardian?) together with images of other saints.
The last chapter deals with Il-Kurċifiss tal-Ponta, a Crucifix at a place in Senglea known as il-Ponta.
The author is not content with giving a statue’s genesis insofar as it is ascertainable, but he looks up documents and reports inscriptions and indulgencies under niches or elsewhere, in order to fill the picture even more.
In the introduction, Mangion reveals quite a bit about his interest in the social contexts of these images that Sengleans so love. Senglea has had a rich a varied history, marked by monuments and rich houses, like the Panzavecchia house in Triq il-Vitorja.
“Niches and statues have an important place in the social history of Malta and Gozo,” he says.
Interesting is the documentation relating to Il-Kurċifiss tal-Ponta at the extreme point of Senglea. It all started when those who had stayed put in Senglea during the terrible days of the war, decided to show their gratitude to heaven by installing a crucifix niche in the Bastions. Easier said than done.
The Malta Environment and Planning Authority was not there in those days, but the intransigence against any action that defaced the stone heritage was equally strong, some would say, thankfully.
A written request countersigned by the parish priest began the long trail of letters. The committee concerned with antiquities advised against the application, so the ‘government secretary’ wrote to deny permission.
The brave Sengleans enlisted the help of Architect Mortimer, who approached Dom Mintoff, then Minister of Works and Construction. He too withheld permission.
Did the Sengleans give up? They had not survived in their rock shelters the attacks of the Luftwaffe to succumb to any terrestrial opposition. They got Emmanuel Stafrace, who also went by the glamorous name of Balel il-Laġġu, to sound the government again, but the secretary of the Ministry of Works again refused to budge even when a free-standing niche was suggested. But that was not the end of the matter.
Eventually Prime Minister Paul Boffa and the archpriest had a tête-à-tête; the result of which was a stringent permission to go ahead with the niche.
You would think this was enough, but it wasn’t, because the Museum Department weighed in to express its disappointment at “this violation of the law, and the committee very much regret that permission by the government has been given”.
Grim, certainly, but it goes to show that our heritage watchdogs have always had a bark.
This is not an academic study, but Mangion provides a short bibliography and a list of artistic terms. He takes time to suggest why people have constructed niches in the past, and honoured also the saints.
Niches mark not only the people’s faith in God, but also their fluctuating fortunes – and they are marking buoys of memory put in place by elders so that later generations should not forget.