Priceless patrimony in peril
September 8, 1943, will forever be indelibly etched in my memory for many reasons, primarily because on that historic day I was physically present as an altar boy at the church of St Philip in war-devastated Senglea, when, after the moving triumphal procession with the statue of Il-Bambina through the appalling ruins, the archpriest, Canon Emanuel Brincat, solemnly announced Italy’s unconditional surrender amid the cries of joy of the enthusiastically devout congregation.
In the morning of that eventful day many shelter dwellers in the walled city of Vittoriosa had left the dismal squalor and misery of the dry ditch on the Vittoriosa landfront to return to their shattered homes. It was traditional for the Vittoriosa children to visit Fort St Angelo on that particular day, a concession by the naval authorities much appreciated by the residents of Cottonera.
It was an occasion for us to explore the ramparts of this historic promontory with the privilege of ringing the 1565 siege bell. As I made my way through the desolate winding streets leading to the Marina, today the Vittoriosa Waterfront, I was visibly shocked at the extent of the devastation as entire streets, churches, palaces, auberges and historical landmarks lay in ruins.
The church of St Lawrence, the erstwhile conventual church of the Order of St John, was badly shaken, its dome, with the fine paintings of the Great Siege, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as the sacristy where 33 citizens had been entombed, had been completely destroyed.
What survived was hurriedly and insensitively patched up, with the result that the damage to this iconic baroque church after almost 70 years is now seriously endangering the priceless art treasures that are undoubtedly an evocative and eloquent testimony to the essentially European ethos of Malta.
In his report on the damage to the island’s monuments, entitled Works of Art in Malta – Losses and Survivals in the War (HMSO 1948), the renowned architect Hugh Braun, a prominent member of a special commission, gives us this stirring description of the Vittoriosa church zone:
“This famous town, long ago stormed for four months by the might of the Ottoman Empire, has now suffered a siege which has laid it once more in ruins. The castle of St Angelo, citadel of the defence, yet stands battered but still the residence of its captain; southwards from it stretches a ruin-field unsurpassed for desolation in all Malta. Churches, houses, even the streets have disappeared; it is impossible to discover the whereabouts of known monuments or make exploration for new discoveries.”
Regrettably, the effect of these terrible bombings, accentuated by the ravages of time and humidity, are taking their toll on the rich centuries-old patrimony entrusted to the church of St Lawrence.
Furthermore a recent Curia report testifies that this ageing parish church is in dire need of very costly urgent restoration, pointing out that its location on the marina, with its attending humidity, is causing a lot of damage to its priceless paintings, sculpture and decoration, particularly the marble-encased pillars.
San Lorenzo-a-mare is described by the late eminent art historian Leonard Mahoney as a “symphony in stone” redolent of history as layer upon layer of different cultures and events unfold, stretching from Malta’s re-Christianisation to the Middle Ages and the glorious Knights’ period.
It exudes the exuberance of the baroque when Vittoriosa emerged as the main protagonist, with Lorenzo Gafà being commissioned to design and re-model the parish church of his native city. Its imposing façade is an evocation of the joys and tribulations of the Great Siege of 1565 now immortalised by blockbuster historical novels like The Sword and the Scimitar by David Ball, Blood Rock by James Jackson and The Religion by Tim Willocks.
But there is hardly a vestige of this momentous event in St Lawrence’s church as the magnificent dome paintings by Carlo Ignazio Cortis depicting episodes of the Great Siege completely collapsed in the savage blitz of January 16, 1941.
This monumental church is much more than a hallowed place of worship; it is an important architectural landmark which set a new trend in Maltese church buildings, culminating in the design and building of the magnificent Mdina cathedral.
The exact proportions and decorative elements of St Lawrence’s church reflect the refined tastes of its skilful craftsmen, manifested in the main aisle with its articulated pillars covered with red marble and yellow and green plinths.
Subsequently, baroque became the predominant artistic medium comprising all the elements such as paintings and sculpture, with the parish church of Vittoriosa scaling new heights expressed in the main altarpiece, The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Mattia Preti’s largest canvas and also his favourite.
This artistic painting is not the only artefact begging for adequate protection from rising damp and leaking water. The chapel of St Joseph, the only altar in Malta dedicated to this saint before 1575, with its impressive painting attributed to Stefano Erardi, is also at risk.
The early 17th-century altarpiece, The Holy Trinity with Saints Cosmas and Damian, attributed to Filippo Paladini, and another large canvas in the south transept of The Assumption of the Virgin by an unknown master considered by Mario Buhagiar as “one of the most significant baroque works in the Maltese Islands” are equally under strict surveillance.
The Florentine and late Mannerist artist Filippo Paladini (c. 1544-1616) executed a brilliant ex-voto of the great plague of 1592-1593 for the chapel of St Rocco of Montpellier representing the “Plague Saints”, namely St Rocco, St Paul and St Sebastian. This historic painting now hangs in the damp but ornate chapel of St Catherine and is always in need of maintenance and restoration.
In the north transept, badly shaken through bombing, above the altar of the Virgin of Charity, is a beautifully designed painting of The Marriage Feast of Cana, attributed to the Preti bottega, another donation by Canon Antonio Testaferrata dated 1698. The artistic furnishings are also showing signs of decay, including the marble baptismal font erected in 1741, and the exquisite organ loft, all indicative of the refined tastes of the period.
The thousands who visit this historic church and its museum every week, guided by the voluntary church wardens, admire all the elements of the baroque and most positively remark about the artistic merits of St Lawrence’s church. Many of these recall the same sentiments about cathedrals in war-ravaged Europe that have been assisted by European funds and institutions as well as generous national foundations, commissions, and friends’ associations set up to protect and preserve these historical and artistic gems for future generations.