Parish priest aims to restore Lija church and paintings

One of the paintings by Giuseppe Calì that like the rest of the paintings by the artist in the dome, the nave and lateral chapels, is in urgent need of restoration.

One of the paintings by Giuseppe Calì that like the rest of the paintings by the artist in the dome, the nave and lateral chapels, is in urgent need of restoration.

The glorious paintings by Giuseppe Calì in Lija parish church are in dire need of repair after rain water seepage through the roof over the years.

The restoration project is being taken in hand by parish priest David Gauci, who hopes to raise tens of thousands of liri through various activities as well as from donations by benefactors.

Fr Gauci said that all the stone work of the church, construction of which started in 1640, needed attention.

"The first thing before the restoration of the paintings is taken in hand is to waterproof the roof and repair any structural damage, otherwise rain water will make its way through the stone work and ruin the paintings again," Fr Gauci said.

Considered one of the top Maltese painters at the end of the 19th century, Calì was dubbed the 'brush devil' by other painters - particularly Italian painters who also were given commissions by Maltese parish priests.

Calì was handed this title by his detractors because of his extreme agility when completing his works, according to Tony Terribile, author of the series Tezori fil-Knejjes Maltin, published by PIN.

The third in the series of 18 volumes which will be out soon deals with the churches in Lija, Attard and Balzan.

"Calì was an accomplished artist and his agility with a brush can be seen by the number of days - which he put down on the canvas - it took him to finish the work.

"The artist started painting the dome at Lija in 1893 and it took him about a year to complete. The paintings show the birth of Christ, the angel bringing good tidings to the shepherds, and an angel directing the Three Wise Men who were looking for the baby Jesus.

"The painting of the roof in the nave was started in 1897 and it took him about two years to complete," Mr Terribile said.

In 'The Iconography of the Maltese Islands: 1400-1900', Mario Buhagiar wrote: "Calì was extremely versatile and prodigiously prolific... his output includes more than 600 works in various media, ranging from a few lithographs and water colours to numerous easel paintings, altar pieces and church vault decorations...

"Christmas is the subject of the dome painting in the parish church of Lija where the composition unwinds itself round the huge drum in a veritable tour de force."

Calì (1846-1930) was born in Valletta to artistically gifted Neapolitan parents and according to Dr Buhagiar his "sensuous style enjoyed tremendous popularity in the last decades of the 19th century".

Initially, Karlu Cortis was commissioned to do the paintings for the Lija church and he did excellent work in the choir but his later work did not meet with the approval of then parish priest Mattew Cortis and the parishioners.

The parish priest had agreed to pay Calì at regular intervals but Fr Cortis' installments were often short of the agreed amount, probably because donations from parishioners were not so bountiful.

"Calì would not take anything like this lying down and in the painting of the prophet Michae over the altar dedicated to St Paul, the hermit, the artist recorded for posterity on the canvas that the parish priest was 'making him beg'.

"In another painting, at the altar dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Calì shows the prophet Jonah looking directly at a painting by Cortis showing Christ preaching to a crowd as if to chastise him (Cortis) for his lack of draughtsmanship," Mr Terribile said.

Other works by Calì at the Lija parish church include 24 angels in flight, 24 Old Testament personalities, 12 cupids and Christ with a group of children.

Fr Gauci said: "So far, Lm14,000 has been collected for this project. The restoration of the façade and the belfries alone are expected to cost about Lm18,000. One benefactor recently donated Lm2,000."

The works will be supervised by architect Alex Torpiano.

Donations may be made directly to APS Bank account 13468510010.

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