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Late 16th-century Żabbar painting is restored

The recent restoration and conservation of the late 16th-century painting of Our Lady of Graces by Art Restoration of Qormi has brought to light the artistic and historical values of this old altarpiece, a very important exhibit at the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum.

The canvas (is) one of the longest surviving paintings on canvas in Malta- Carmel Bonavia

The locality of Żabbar has been associated with popular devotion to Our Lady of Graces since the late Middle Ages, when a small rural chapel, the only one on the island dedicated to Mary, Mother of Grace, used to attract devotees and pilgrims from all over the island. At one time, ex-voto offerings (mementoes, especially paintings, of graces received) covered the walls of this small chapel.

An inventory drawn up in 1570 by Mgr Antonio Bartolo, chancellor and vicar-general of the diocese, lists old rich sacred vestments and other church furnishings which had survived the Great Siege of 1565.

Unfortunately, neither this important document nor the first detailed report on Maltese churches drawn up by Mgr Pietro Dusina after his visitation in 1575 describe in detail the icon of Our Lady of Graces venerated at Żabbar.

The only reference is a generic one to a “Madonna and Child” or de Nativitate, whose feast was celebrated on September 8. This coincidence with the anniversary of the Great Siege victory considerably increased the popularity of the Żabbar sanctuary.

The earliest painting of Our Lady still surviving in this chapel was probably the central wooden panel of a triptych showing an enthroned Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus still preserved in the Żabbar Museum. The two wings of this panel may have featured the apostle St Paul and St Leonard, the protector of slaves.

This icon was replaced in 1572 by another panel on wood offered by Julianus Cauchi, representing Our Lady and the Child Jesus, St Paul and St Leonard.

Some time later, before the last decade of the 16th century, this was again replaced by a painting on canvas featuring the Divine Mother seated on a throne holding the Infant Jesus on her lap with St Paul standing on her right and St Leonard on her left. A young St John the Baptist is seen in the lower right section while a pair of iron shackles used on galley-rowers appear at the feet of St Leonard. This painting has just been restored and is considered as the oldest surviving titular painting venerated at the Żabbar sanctuary.

In 1585, Grand Master Hughes Loubens de Verdalle (1582-1595) made a financial contribution to supplement donations by parishioners to repair and enlarge this chapel. He later donated a new titular painting showing an enthroned Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus with St John the Baptist and Grand Master Verdalle on her right, with St Leonard and St Catherine of Alexandria, patron of Żejtun parish, of which Żabbar still formed part, on her left. A representation of the Holy Trinity filled the upper section. The holy souls in Purgatory were depicted in the lower part of the painting.

This detailed description is given by Bishop Tommaso Gargallo (1578-1614) during his visit to Żabbar on November 7, 1600.

The present sanctuary was built between 1641 and 1696, and in 1715 a new painting by Alessio Erardi (1671-1727) was installed; it is venerated to the present day.

An oval sotto quadro of St Paul, who was always considered as the second patron of the parish, was later added to the choir altar just below the Erardi painting.

Almost the same characteristics of the devotion to Our Lady of Graces were always kept: Our Lady holding Baby Jesus in her arms, dispensing graces, the devotion of St Paul as the second patron of the parish, together with the theme of freedom from both spiritual and material slavery expressed by different symbols.

The painting just restored dates from the period between Cauchi’s panel of 1572 on wood and Verdalle’s titular painting on canvas in the last decade of the 16th century. This makes this restored canvas one of the longest surviving paintings on canvas in Malta.

The earliest dated and signed known painting on canvas is Bartolomeo Micallef’s Madonna del Giglio of 1551 now preserved at the Capuchin Museum in Floriana.

Canvas has been used to support paintings since classical times. However, it became popular during the 15th century in northern Europe, particularly in Belgium and Holland. Later it was introduced in Italy, especially in the Veneto region, substituting wood, which is subject to humidity, salinity and other climatic effects. Canvas had another advantage in that it required an easier preparation than wood and could afford a larger area for painting.

In 1615 the old chapel dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady but popularly known as S. Maria dell’Indirizzo, just outside the old village core of Żabbar, was rebuilt and required a new titular painting. The pre-Verdalle altarpiece was thus transferred to this newly-rebuilt chapel. This Marian title, dell’Indirizzo, is attributed to churches in Sicily dedicated to Our Lady, mainly in and around Catania.

The Carmelite sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo, foun­ded in the 13th century, is perhaps one of the oldest. Others are found in other localities of Catania such as Barriera, Pischeria, Canalicchio and San Giorgio, while one also meets this devotion in Messina, at San Giacomo and the Cistercensian monastery of the Holy Spirit. This title, attributed to Our Lady, reflected her intercession in guiding Christians to achieve their final goal of salvation.

The chapel known as Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo at Żabbar was clearly documented for the first time in 1615. The painting which has just been restored is described in detail by Mgr Francesco Pontremoli, Capitular Vicar, on September 14, 1634.

It continued to adorn this small chapel until 1972 when the parish priest, Fr Joseph Zarb, realised its historical importance in relation to the devotion to Our Lady of Graces in Żabbar. It was transfered to the Sanctuary Museum while a new painting by Rafel Bonnici Calì substituted the old painting. This new painting represents the Assumption of Our Lady to whom the oldest chapel in that locality had been dedicated for centuries.

The pre-Verdalle canvas needed a thorough restoration owing to the damage, overpainting and makeshift interventions during all these years.

It is remarkable how rosary beads were added to St Paul’s left hand. This was probably done during the early 1600s when devotion to the Rosary started to grow. In fact, it was in 1617 that the Holy Rosary confraternity was established in Żabbar.

Another interesting fact is how the same image of St Paul has been misinterpreted: between 1634 and 1759, as recorded in the pastoral visitations, he was referred to as St Joseph; up to 1862 he is mentioned as St Zacharias, father of St John the Baptist, while in the visitation of 1866 the figure is mistakenly identified as St Peter.

Despite all this, devotion towards this icon of Our Lady survived through the years.

In the visitation of 1686 by Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri (1684-1711), the icon was adorned with two silver crowns on Our Lady and Baby Jesus. The painting was then placed within sculpted and gilded wooden columns. This popular crowning of Marian images is also recorded in other churches in Malta, namely at Birkirkara, Valletta, Senglea and Qormi.

During the recent restoration it transpired that other attempts at restoration, including relining, had been made. Paint was also used to fill the holes in the support. Two cotton widths sewn together formed the old lining; small pieces of canvas used in previous restorations were also detected.

Newspapers were also used to patch the rent or torn parts, especially in St Paul’s robe, which was the most damaged area. From these newspaper fragments one would conclude that the patching was done between 1866 and 1880.

The image of St Paul has been misinterpreted as St Joseph, as St Zacharias and as St Peter- Carmel Bonavia

Because of this condition, Mgr Felix Cutajar, the special delegate of Bishop Gaetano Pace Forno (1857-1874), in his visitation of 1866, insisted that this icon required professional repair and restoration.

St Paul’s robe and the column near his hand are evidence of the restoration that followed in 1880 and the initials G.B. record the still unknown artist who performed these interventions. Recent restoration revealed that the original features and colours on the face of the Madonna flaked away and were totally lost. However, the re­fined features of St Leonard and St Paul rewarded all efforts in bringing to light the artistic level of the original artist.

Now that this canvas has been restored, it has regained some of its old splendour and it witnesses even today the attachment it has always had to the devotion of the people towards Our Lady.

Further studies are still needed to better appreciate its historical and artistic values. The present restoration was a very good step in this long journey.

The painting is now at the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum where during these festive days an exhibition on the restoration process is being put up.

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