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The cemetery which opened the gates to extramural burials

History of Ta' Braxia cemetery revisted in newly-published book

From left: Keith Sciberras, Christopher Grech, Conrad Thake, Janica Buhagiar and Fr Simon Godfrey, chancellor of St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, during a book launch at the Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel. Photos: Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, 2017, including a selection from Richard Ellis Archive – Malta

From left: Keith Sciberras, Christopher Grech, Conrad Thake, Janica Buhagiar and Fr Simon Godfrey, chancellor of St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Valletta, during a book launch at the Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel. Photos: Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, 2017, including a selection from Richard Ellis Archive – Malta

Located in one of Malta’s busiest traffic nodes, Ta’ Braxia, in Pietà, is one of the few multifaith cemeteries on the island and the final resting place of prominent personalities, including Russian ballerina Princess Natalie Poutiatine.

Designed and planned by renowned Maltese architect Emanuele Luigi Galizia (1830-1907), it was the first extramural cemetery in Malta. Its construction came in the wake of a scathing sanitary report on the health dangers of continued burials in overcrowded harbour churches, which was common practice until the mid-19th century. Moreover, the Protestant burial grounds at the Msida Bastions cemetery had reached capacity.

At the time, the local church authorities were vehemently opposed to the idea of burial grounds outside the confines of parishes, as well as multifaith interment.

Plague cemeteries were the only exception. However, less than 20 years later, the scenario changed completely with the construction of the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery on the outskirts of Paola in 1872.

Unfortunately, parts of Ta’ Braxia were severely damaged by aerial bombardment in World War II. The natural elements have also taken a heavy toll on the funerary monuments, especially those made from soft Maltese limestone. Some of them are heavily eroded and in dire need of restoration.

In 2000, Din l-Art Ħelwa, in conjunction with the Department of Health, set up a restoration committee. A year later, an association named Friends of Ta’ Braxia was set up and assumed responsibility for the maintenance and ongoing restoration of the property, actively supported by Din l-Art Ħelwa.

A stone carving of a sleeping figure clasping a cross, part of a monument in the memory of Adelaide F.S. Wise, 1871.A stone carving of a sleeping figure clasping a cross, part of a monument in the memory of Adelaide F.S. Wise, 1871.

Interest in the cemetery was recently rekindled through a new publication by Conrad Thake and Janica Buhagiar which delves beyond just the architectural heritage of the cemetery.

Conceived by Governor William Reid, the cemetery was inaugurated in 1857 as “a place where persons of all religious creeds may be interred” and not only those of Protestant faith. At the time, he faced opposition from the Roman Catholic establishment, as well as nationalist, anti-colonial parties.

The Lady Hamilton Gordon memorial chapel was designed
by John Loughborough Pearson, one of the most acclaimed Victorian architects

Hence, it was no surprise that the choice of Galizia as architect was perceived as an act of defiance, since he was Catholic. He would later be commissioned to design the Ottoman and the Addolorata cemeteries.

Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, which continued to expand until 1880, is still in use and boasts rich iconography.

The variety of crosses and funerary monuments adorning the garden cemetery, including, at front left, the John L. Gordon Paterson monument in marble made by Underwood of Baker Street, London, in 1905.The variety of crosses and funerary monuments adorning the garden cemetery, including, at front left, the John L. Gordon Paterson monument in marble made by Underwood of Baker Street, London, in 1905.

Monuments and memorials there required the approval of a committee of management for designs, sculptors and craftsmen. The cemetery’s most distinctive landmark only came at a later stage: the Lady Hamilton Gordon memorial chapel, built in 1893 to 1894.

Built by her husband, Charles, who was a colonial administrator and a great friend of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the structure was erected in remembrance of Lady Rachel Emily.

She had died in Malta during a stopover while the couple were on their way to England at the end of Charles’s governorship of Ceylon. The chapel, which is in need of restoration, was designed by John Loughborough Pearson, one of the most acclaimed Victorian architects.

Among the most eloquently imposing and artistically superior funerary monuments is the one dedicated to Swedish shipping magnate Olof Fredrik Gollcher (1829-89), the work of Milanese sculptor Egidio Pozzi.

It consists of a bronze portrait bust set upon a high column draped in bronze wreaths that rises from a podium against which, in the agony of sorrow, reclines the life-size statue of a bereaved widow.

The Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel dates to circa 1900.The Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel dates to circa 1900.

A limestone monument in remembrance of the officers and seamen who died aboard the HMS Gibraltar in 1864.A limestone monument in remembrance of the officers and seamen who died aboard the HMS Gibraltar in 1864.

Another notable monument, which was severely damaged in WWII, is that commemorating the death of wealthy ship chandler William Stephen Eynaud.

What is more intriguing is the Eynaud family commissioned the monument from the US. This is confirmed by the boldly chiselled label ‘Draddy Bros’. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Pozzi working sketch for the Gollcher monument, all design drawings have been lost or mislaid, and so the majority of the works remain anonymous.

The exceptions are those inscribed with the artist’s name, like J. Darmanin and Sons Marble Works of Strade Levante, Valletta, Francesco Psaila Vallone, of Birkirkara, A. Penza, of Strada Santa Luċia, Valletta, and J. McFarlane Dundee, from the UK.

Apart from crosses (Templar, Latin and Celtic) the cemetery is full of symbolism in the shape of urns, pyramids, obelisks, broken columns, flames, inverted torches, winged hourglasses and even freemasonry – all of which have specific meanings.

As the authors of the book opine, the rise in popularity of cultural tourism presents a unique opportunity to present Ta’ Braxia cemetery as an alternative offering to Malta’s mainstream heritage attractions.

However, for this to happen, they feel there needs to be an effort by the authorities to embark on a restoration project to bring the garden cemetery back to its former glory.

More information on the book and guided tours of the Ta’ Braxia Cemetery can be acquired by sending an e-mail to cthake@go.net.mt.

The ceremony of the laying of the Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel foundation stone on May 29, 1893.The ceremony of the laying of the Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel foundation stone on May 29, 1893.

View of the tree-lined Via Principessa Melita (today’s Triq l-Indipendenza) circa 1900 and the newly constructed Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel. Ta’ Braxia is in the background.View of the tree-lined Via Principessa Melita (today’s Triq l-Indipendenza) circa 1900 and the newly constructed Lady Hamilton Gordon chapel. Ta’ Braxia is in the background.

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