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Artistic heritage of a mediaeval parish church

The mediaeval city of Vittoriosa is today en fête celebrating the liturgical feast of St Lawrence, an early Christian martyr from Spain to whose devotion in this maritime city was introduced by the castellans of the Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo) in the Middle Ages.

The De Guevaras, an influential noble family from Aragon, birthplace of St Lawrence, were instrumental in initiating many Spanish devotions and traditions in ancient Vittoriosa.

This is evidenced in the processional statue of St Lawrence dressed in historic precious vestments, including a linen alba donated by the last Inquisitor, Mgr Giulio Carpegna.

A sense of history pervades the erstwhile conventual church of the Order of St John as layers of different cultures and occasions unfold, stretching from Malta ’s re-Christianisation to the Middle Ages to the glorious Knights’ period and the exuberance of the baroque when Vittoriosa emerges as the main protagonist with Lorenzo Gafà being commissioned in the late 17th century to design and remodel the parish church of his native city.

Built in Roman baroque style, this monumental church is an important architectural landmark that set a new trend in Maltese church building culminating in the design and building of the Mdina cathedral. Subsequently, baroque became the predomin-ant artistic medium comprising painting, sculpture and architecture. The Vittoriosa parish scaled new heights, expressed in the magnificent painting of the main altarpiece, The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Mattia Preti’s largest canvas and also his favourite, the exquisite sculptures that adorn the church and the legacy of centuries of ornamental work on the galleys. But the jewel in the crown of ecclesiastical architecture are the exact proportions and the decorative elements of St Lawrence’s displaying the refined tastes manifested in the main aisle with its articulating panels covered in subdued red marble with yellow bases and dark green marble plinths. In fact, architectural historians describe the interior as a “symphony in stone”.

On the feast day, San Lorenzo a Mare, as the church was known in the Middle Ages, is adorned for the occasion displaying ancient artistic treasures brought over from Rhodes in 1530.

If Vittoriosa had had no other claim to artistic fame, the rich ancient collection of objets d’art from the Knights’ sojourn in Rhodes would establish it as a city of exceptional historical and artistic merit. The ecclesiastical works of art include an impressive processional silver cross from a 15th-century craftsman that now serves as the main altar cross on the feast of St Lawrence. There is also a silver thurible or censer in the shape of a hexagonal tower suspended on chains, possibly late-14th-century and unique in its craftsmanship and a 15th-century devotional cross set with precious stones and used by the Grand Masters when taking the oath of office.

Another interesting item is a delicate early-16th-century cha-lice which, according to tradition, was a gift of the Knights to the troglodytic church of St Ann in Fort St Angelo, which had been under the jurisdiction of the Vittoriosa parish for many centuries. Of great interest is the recently-identified priceless painting by the great 16th-century Venetian artist Palma Vecchio, La Sacra Conversazione.

Visitors to St Lawrence church will admire all the elements of the baroque, particularly the unsurpassed sculpture and fine workmanship, the fruit of artist-ic refinement and good taste. This is represented by the exquisite design of the organ loft, the walnut and ebony platform for the processional statue of St Lawrence, the baptismal font erected in 1741 and the inlaid walnut pulpit, all emerging from the numerous botteghe that were housed in the narrow winding streets of Vittoriosa.

Synonymous with emotion, power, drama and sheer energy, the baroque elements in Vittor-iosa reach their climax on all fronts in the packed church enhanced by the baroque music of Canon Luigi Fenech during the rendering of the antiphony at the final stages of the festivities.

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