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Oratories and a cantata

I have always loved the Jesuits church in Mer­chants Street, Valletta, possibly because it is so radically different from other churches. Its unadorned almost mannerist architectural austerity is high­lighted by the most wonderfully baroque features of any such building in Malta.

Are we going to sit back and do nothing while these irreplaceable works of art fall into ruin?
- Kenneth Zammit Tabona

Because it has no parishioners to speak of, bequests and donations have not taken their toll on the fine boned lines of this very handsome building and everything in it is what one would call authentically 16th century. In fact, it was built between 1592 and 1600.

Its side chapels are gems while their altarpieces breathtaking. The paintings in them are among the finest in all Malta. The elaborately sculpted structure, which backs the altar with its barley-sugar columns reminiscent of Bernini’s baldachin in St Peter’s, frames the painting depicting the Circumcision, dominated by a young Christ child who reminds me more of a sensual Young Apollo than Our Lord. All we have to do is hark back to the Olympian iconography used in Ravenna, where a beardless Christ looks like Apollo’s twin, to realise how art, especially sacred art, is derivative and its origins are lost in mythology and legend. That is part of its beauty and allure.

I had not been in the Jesuit church for some years but, while planning out the Valletta International Baroque Festival, the aim of which is to infuse our lovely capital with the beauty of baroque music, I could not leave out what I consider to be the second most important church in Valletta after St John’s as a venue for a couple of concerts.

I had envisaged using the absolutely exquisite oratories on the side of Archbishop Street, the chapels of the Onorati and of the Rosary, which are simply glorious but I was sadly disappointed as the Onorati chapel roof is in danger of collapse and the other is not much better.

The main church is in none too good a state, however, we were able to use it to full effect for two festival performances: the New Century Baroque Ensemble on January 18 and the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam with Bach’s hauntingly lovely Cantata BWV 56, sung with pathos and great musical gravitas by baritone Thomas Oliemans on the 24th.

Although hampered by a peculiar acoustically dissonant patch half way down the aisle, the church provides a unique aural and visual backdrop to the music of the great divine genius, Johann Sebastian Bach, and it was during the Kreuzstab Cantata that I made up my mind that, somehow, I was going to get this sacred complex restored to its deserved glory if it were the last thing I did. I have been informed that, after years of neglect, due to an ownership disagreement, the church has now been given to the University of Malta, which is all very well and good. The church has always been associated with the University and graduation ceremonies have taken place in it since the days of Grand Master Manuel Pinto, whose arms with their distinctive crescent moons are still borne within those of the University.

I have been informed that the University has no money to spare to even attempt a much needed damage limitation in the sacristy of the Onorati chapel wherein stones and debris have fallen.

So tell me, are we going to sit back and do nothing while these irreplaceable works of art fall into ruin? Can the Government and the Church watch the deterioration of the most prestigious church in Malta after St John’s without lifting a finger?

Since the St John’s Foundation was set up about a decade ago we have seen a lacklustre co-cathedral come into its own in a blaze of gold. It looks utterly magnificent. Anyone of the 1,100 people who braved the cold and the rain on January 17 to listen to Bach’s Magnificat, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Zadok the Priest and the exquisite Zerafa cum sancto spiritu, will agree that the setting could not have been more sumptuous and that the restoration, which still carries on apace, has transformed it into one of the most impressive churches in Christendom.

It is therefore essential, once the newly-recognised owners, the University, have not the wherewithal to effect the necessary restoration at the Jesuit church and its oratories to establish a similar foundation to that which now runs St John’s.

We cannot ignore the situation. The facade, with its glorious almost Jugendstil cherub heads, is cracked and the wall backing the Onorati chapel on Merchants Street is crumbling like old parmesan! This cannot be allowed to happen. Restoration work should have started yesterday and after this article appears should be put in motion without any further delay to avoid more unnecessary deteriorating.

In the words of the great Bach Cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, or I Shall The Cross Gladly Carry, we must all leave no stone unturned to ensure that not the least fraction of our common heritage is allowed to reach a state such as that of the hapless Jesuit church and its oratories but gladly take up the cause to restore them to the glorious state they deserve to be in.

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