Artistic legacy of the Dominicans in Vittoriosa
Like the mythological Phoenix the Dominican church of the Annunciation and its convent in Vittoriosa have completely risen from their wartime ashes and the Dominican friars can now proclaim once again their mission statement “to praise, to bless and to preach”, very welcome disciples of hope in a turbulent age.
As the Dominican community in this ancient city today celebrates the popular feast of St Dominic, nostalgic reminiscences are evoked about the artistic and historic treasures completely lost in the savage German raid on this mediaeval enclave on January 19, 1941.
The sacristy, main apse with delicate paintings by Lazzaro Pisani, the beautiful organ loft, enhanced by the exquisite paintings by Giuseppe Calì, the choir and a huge section of the priory were completely destroyed, and precious mediaeval paintings dating from the 13th century perished.
Two weeks later, after heavy rains, the magnificent dome which had just been painted by the Italian artist Gian Battista Conti, completely collapsed and two whole years of exceptional artistic works disappeared before even seeing the light of day.
Thus a church of refined culture and arts with over 500 years of history, characterised by the harmonious paintings representing the ingenuity and passion of the best artists of the early 20th century, was a heap of ruins. In the annals of World War II we do not find any other church in the Maltese Islands that was so savagely annihilated; it was definitely not a legitimate target for aerial bombing. Unfortunately space limitations did not permit the Dominicans to leave a section in ruins as in Coventry Cathedral, in order to serve as a reminder of the brutal blitz.
In the circumstances the Dominican community very reluctantly left their beloved city where even under very difficult conditions they continued to give their invaluable services only to return homeless to Vittoriosa in December 1942, residing temporarily in the improvised convent at the Inquisitor’s Palace, intent on giving much needed spiritual, cultural and educational assistance for the well-being of the shell-shocked city of which they form an integral part.
This feature is an acknowledgement and an appreciation of the scholarly work of two Vittoriosa-born Dominican friars, namely Fr Mikiel Fsadni of Caxaro’s Cantilena fame, and the late historian Prof. Andrew Vella, to whose writings I am greatly indebted for the preparation of this feature.
The Dominicans set foot in Malta around 1450, reputably on the initiative of the Dominican Fr Pietro Zurchi, a Maltese friar from Mdina attached to the vast Dominican priory in Sicily.
Like other religious orders before them, they established their church and convent in the relative safety of Rabat, a safe distance from the marauding pirates that infested the coastal areas. The church was erected near a small cave where, according to a long-standing legend, the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to a hunter sheltering there.
Subsequently the site was enlarged, with the funds mainly coming from generous donations of fertile lands by the non-resident Bishop of Malta, Antonio di Alagona. In spite of the attractions of the other religious orders in the area and the very turbulent historical period, by 1527 the Dominican community in Rabat was quite numerous and was eager to expand its mission to other parts of the island.
The commendable reputation of the Dominican friars in the Rabat area is best shown in the invitation made to them on October 12, 1527 to consider the opening of another church and convent in the maritime city of Birgu (which was given the name Vittoriosa after the Great Siege of 1565).
At this time this harbour city, the only sea-facing settlement protected by its mighty fortifications at the tip of this promontory, was rapidly expanding its activities mainly due to the ever-increasing influx of merchants and seafarers from Genoa, Pisa, Venice and many Spanish ports in Catalonia.
The highly reputable ship-building yard on the Vittoriosa Marina in the sheltered waters of Galley Creek was a major source of revenue and employment; and so was corsairing, which was widely practised by notable Vittoriosa families, as evidenced from the very erudite research by Stanley Fiorini.
At that time the Vittoriosa peninsula was also known as Ras il-Knejjes (headland of churches) for the numerous churches erected there, foremost of which was San Lorenzo-a-Mare, the parish church on the Birgu waterfront.
According to secure documents, besides the parish church, another church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin had already existed in 1450 in the main processional route characterised by an elegant campanile. Towards the beginning of the 16th century it became known as the Church of the Annunciation (it is still known as Il-Lunzjata), which was fully maintained by a very prosperous confraternity whose names are now recorded by Godfrey Wettinger in the book Birgu – a Maltese Maritime City, Vol. l. Through the generosity of this confraternity the church was endowed with beautiful furnishings and vestments intended to promote the cult of the Virgin Mary.
It is recorded that the promptings of the Harbour Master Antonio D’Armenia, who lived in this maritime city and whose son was a Dominican friar, were finally instrumental for the Dominicans to establish a second home in Birgu. The parish priest of San Lorenzo-a-Mare, Fr Filippo De Guevara, enthusiastically confirmed this offer and publicly declared that “it would be a great honour for the city of Birgu to receive the friars, a source of great spiritual benefit”. On February 4, 1528 Fr Andrea de Gaudisio, OP, accompanied by a number of friars from the Rabat convent, took formal possession of the Lunzjata church.
Incidentally fresh evidence unearthed today suggests that the Dominicans were fully aware of the possible imminent coming of the Knights of St John to this maritime city, an auspicious event which occurred in October, 1530.
The Knights established their headquarters in Birgu and since San Lorenzo was immediately proclaimed as the Conventual Church of the Order, the church of il-Lunzjata emerged as the new parish serving a very prosperous community with the result that an expansive priory was built. With the influx of the Rhodiots that accompanied the Knights and the ever-increasing population, the Dominicans had to make continuous modifications to their church and convent.
The Dominicans from their prosperous base in Vittoriosa ventured to pastures new by establishing in 1569 a new priory and church in the new city of Valletta with the official title of “Our Lady of Porto Salvo” which in 1571 was raised to the status of parish for all the citizens of Valletta.
In the meantime in their Vittoriosa priory a very bold innovation was taking place by which the maintenance of the different chapels within the church of Il-Lunzjata was the responsibility of the confraternities and private owners. For example, the Confraternity of the Annunciation was responsible for the high altar with the polyptych of The Virgin Mary with Child Jesus.
In 1597 the Chapel of the Nativity was maintained by a certain Giovanni Carlo da Avola, a Maltese corsair who distinguished himself in the Great Siege. Sadly, all these priceless treasures were lost in the last war, including the ancient icon of The Virgin Suckling the Child, a late Italo-Byzantine painting on wood which before the coming of the Knights was venerated in the Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo).
After the Great Siege it become a cult object with the Knights, and the Maltese attributed the hard-won victory to its miraculous intercession. The only photograph of this celebrated icon exists in the book by Aldo Farini, Malta – Piccola Isola Della Grande Storia (1926).
There were other notable chapels with important paintings commissioned to the Syracusan artist Girolamo Spagnuolo residing in Vittoriosa whose Candlemas Madonna still adorns this city’s Benedictine nunnery.
In the early 17th century the Dominicans in Vittoriosa decided to demolish the old church which had seen many cumbersome modifications, in order to build a more composite edifice. On June 23, 1638, the foundation stone was laid by the Inquisitor, Mgr Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII. The new church, built in the Corinthian order, was renowned for its architectural innovations with its elegant columns and a wide nave. No expense was spared to make the new church of Il-Lunzjata, which I fondly remember, a veritable artistic gem with priceless paintings from the previous edifice as well as extensive paintings by famous artists and artisans of the late 19th century.
These included an artistic silver pedestal made on the design and supervision of master craftsman Giuseppe Decelis in 1903 for the statue of St Dominic, as well as an ornate pedestal with beautiful sculptures and inlaid symbols by the renowned artisans of this city.
So refined was the artistic milieu of the Dominican priory that an artistic wooden statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, made by Vincenzo Bonnici in 1864, was awarded the coveted gold medal at the Industrial Exhibition. Unlike the other works of art which perished in the last war, these last items have survived and still embellish the new church.
In the immediate post-war period the Dominicans had to grapple not only with the immediate building of their devastated church and convent but also with government authorities who, intent on road widening, demolished the mediaeval tower, an important architectural landmark which had inspired the great Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar.
The priory was completely rebuilt in 1954 followed in August 1960 by the inauguration of the new church from where the Dominican tradition of excellent pastoral service has continued uninterruptedly to the present day.
An interesting feature of the new church complex is the architecturally pleasing cloister with surrounding columns exuding an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in the centre of Vittoriosa.
Compatible with their refined tastes the Dominicans are endowing their new church with artistic paintings starting by commissioning Emvin Cremona who painted the main altarpiece of The Annunciation as well as the canvas of Our Lady of the Rosary, both considered to be among Cremona’s most outstanding works.
Undoubtedly, on the feast day the new dynamic statue of St Dominic by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi on its precious silver pedestal takes pride of place.
The historical city of Vittoriosa beckons… and the Dominican community invites you to share in their festivities in honour of St Dominic.