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Museum reopened displaying spellbinding collection of artefacts

The only surviving wooden cart that was used to transport the victims of the plague to their resting place.

The only surviving wooden cart that was used to transport the victims of the plague to their resting place.

With exhibits ranging from the only remaining wooden cart used for transporting plague victims to the grave, to the remains of a Vulcan bomber that exploded and fell over the town in 1975, the Sanctuary Museum at Zabbar houses a spellbinding collection of artefacts that throws invaluable light on the social history of the town.

The museum was reopened on Saturday to a select audience after it was closed for the past three years to have the roof replaced because it was in a dangerous state.

It will be open to the public when enough volunteers are found to man it.

"The replacement of the roof, the installation of a lift and the revamping of the museum have cost close to Lm130,000. Parishioners and the parish have donated substantial sums and the museum took a loan from the Curia but no government department or authority has extended a helping hand, not even to exempt the museum from paying VAT on the lift," Carmel G. Bonavia, historian and a member of the museum management commission said in an interview.

The museum is still looking for sponsorships to relieve it of the financial burden it is carrying.

The museum, which also displays the first mechanical clock in the spire of the parish church of Zabbar that used to call the faithful to prayer, will be of special interest to culture tourists but it will have to be run on a commercial basis in order to be kept in good trim.

Mr Bonavia said: "The mechanism of the clock made by Antonio Giuseppe Tanti in 1750 was completely made by hand. The weights of the clock used to keep time consist of bombs used by the French during their attack on Zabbar".

The museum also houses the largest collection of maritime ex-voto paintings on the island, totalling close to 100.

The reason for this was that for the Maltese and the knights of St John, Zabbar was the centre of religious devotion.

As testimony of this great devotion to the Madonna, the walls of the sanctuary up to the early 1700s were covered in ex-voto paintings, pieces of rope and parts of sails, handcuffs used to restrain slaves and iron spurs that sailors used in combat to puncture enemy boats.

These relics testified to the life-threatening situations that those who left these mementos wanted to record.

Three years ago, one of the ex-votos was attributed to Mattia Preti by John Spike, a noted historian of Italian art of the 15th through the 18th centuries specialising on Mattia Preti's works, the 17th century painter known as Il Calabrese.

Originally, the feast of September 8 celebrating the victory of the Great Siege of 1565 used to be marked at Zabbar but when the knights realised that many Maltese used to go to Zabbar on September 8 and not to Valletta they decreed that the feast of Our Lady of Graces would be celebrated on the first Sunday after. The museum also includes a fresco that was transported from the old chapel of Sta Dominica at Zabbar. Part of the fresco is missing because people believed that behind such frescoes treasure was buried so looters often searched behind frescoes, ruining parts if not all of the painting, Mr Bonavia said.

Another item is a wooden model of a 64-gun ship of the line, the San Giachomino, which dates back to the 1740s. These models were thanksgiving tokens to the church. The shipyard of the Order of St John used to promise to present a model of the ships they launched if everything went well at the launching. This is the only model known to have survived.

The marble baptismal font is the first font that was installed at the church of Our Lady of Graces in Zabbar when the church was inaugurated in 1616.

In fact the church still has preserved documents recording the birth, marriages and deaths since 1616.

The bowl of the font is made up of two sections, one to hold the holy water and the other to hold the water that is used during baptism ceremonies.

The font is decorated with two coats of arms: one belonging to Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt who was the first godfather at the church and the other belonging to bishop Baldassere Cagliares who set up the parish.

When this font was discarded, someone imbued with a dose of lateral thinking skills drilled a hole in the thickness of the marble making up the two sections in order to turn it into a fish ball and placed it in a garden.

This secondary but mundane use of the font might have saved it from being thrown away as having no further use.

The Sanctuary Museum was the first structure on the island built purposely to house such artefacts - the other museums used to be either palaces or stately homes.

The imposing museum was opened on September 5, 1954 on the initiative of the then parish priest, Fr Joseph Zarb.

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