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The art of charity

The paintings depicting the corporal acts of charity by Giuseppe d’Arena. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The paintings depicting the corporal acts of charity by Giuseppe d’Arena. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Nestled in a quiet corner of St Paul’s Shipwreck church, in Valletta, is a small and unassuming entryway to one of its various oratories and chapels. A small dome at its mouth gives way to a door on the left-hand side. Through that opening is an oratory dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, which houses unique works of art as well as a rich and intriguing history.

A lithograph by William Schellinks depicting the Fawwara Chapel in 1664, almost 50 years after it was first built.A lithograph by William Schellinks depicting the Fawwara Chapel in 1664, almost 50 years after it was first built.

The oratory is one of several looked after by the Confraternity of Charity, a charitable foundation with a long history intertwined with the capital.

Much like their titular chapel, the confraternity has led a quiet but impactful existence since its inception. Founded in 1610, it initially came together as a group of wealthy residents of the capi­tal who wished to set up funds and initiatives that benefitted the well-being of the poor.

As the Knights of St John brought their abundant riches to their new fortified city, poverty still ran rampant among the lower classes. The confraternity, aware and troubled by the prevalence of social inequality, made it its mission to provide assistance to the poor and anyone in need who came knocking on their door.

In its prime, the confraternity provided dowries for needy girls and reformed prostitutes, to allow them to marry or join convents and escape the destitution that was rife in Valletta at the time.

The confraternity upheld dearly the corporeal as well as the spiritual works of mercy which today still influence the chari­table causes it provides aid to

The confraternity upheld dearly the corporeal as well as the spiritual works of mercy, which today still influence the chari­table causes it provides aid to. The oratory of Our Lady of Charity houses six works by the painter Giuseppe d’Arena – who was one of the most active artists in Malta at the time – depicting the corporal acts of charity in notable acts of biblical figures.

The widow of Sarepta gives bread to the prophet Elijah envisions feeding the poor; the prodigal son returning to his father to be draped in his cloak tells us to clothe the naked; a merciful conqueror, Judas Maccabeus is depicted burying the dead; Abraham the father invites the three angels to sit at his table, reminding its audience the virtue of being charitable without inhibition.

An additional two paintings depict Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams from a prison cell, as well as King David of Israel on his deathbed – a call to visit the sick and the imprisoned. The works draw attention to both Giuseppe d’Arena’s skill and talent as a contemporary artist as well as representing the core values of charity in way that has remained communicable throughout the centuries.

The chapel’s altar piece is a stunning picture by Attilio Palombi – who also worked on the dome of the collegiate church – depicting Our Lady of Charity seated with the Infant Christ on her lap, a tender setting as they bless the poor and the indigent in their midst.

This is accompanied by two works of Francesco Zahra framed in marble, depicting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and Christ on the way to Calvary. The theme is visibly agony, specifically that of Christ pre-empting his great suffering.

Here, as well, is the message that small acts of charity may serve to alleviate even some suffering – in the angel sent to comfort Jesus in the absence of his friends, and in the crawling figure of Saint Veronica, her head noticeably unveiled as she offers Christ a small relief from his great strife.

The titular painting of Our Lady of Charity by Attilio Palombi, with the works of Francesco Zahra on either side, at the Oratory of Our Lady of Charity in Valletta. Photo: Jonathan BorgThe titular painting of Our Lady of Charity by Attilio Palombi, with the works of Francesco Zahra on either side, at the Oratory of Our Lady of Charity in Valletta. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Among its responsibilities, the Confraternity of Charity also finds itself warden to a small rural chapel with a peculiar history.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is an idyllic structure built atop a freshwater spring in Fawwara, a farming region in the limits of Siġġiewi.

It owes its existence to Donna Ġerolama Ciantar, a noblewoman from Vittoriosa, who owned land in the vicinity.

Legend has it that one particularly arid season, the Spring dried up and crops began to fail as the land became increasingly inhospitable to life.

Donna Ġerolama, facing the prospect of this devastation, made a vow to Our Lady, promising to build a chapel on the site should the Spring bubble back to life.

As the lady prayed, the water flowed again. The chapel was built in 1616 with funds provided by Donna Ġerolama and, true to her word, she bequeathed the chapel and her lands to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Charity.

As Donna Ġerolama Ciantar prayed, the water flowed again

The church was rebuilt in 1669 and subsequently restored in 1756.

There it remains undisturbed, in the shadow of the imposing cliffs, overlooking unobstructed views of the western shores and the islet of Filfla on the horizon.

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was recently celebrated there, without much pomp and circumstance but in the quiet humility that the location inspires.

In the Chapel of Our Lady of Charity, in Valletta, the exterior dome houses a fresco by Emvin Cremona that depicts Donna Ġerolama praying to Our Lady, as well as the Fawwara chapel in the background.

Nowadays, the Confraternity of Charity is still quietly moving along with the times.

It holds true to many of the original tenets of its formation, finding means to continue being charitable in ways that remain helpful and relevant.

This includes working with care providers such as Dar Hosea and Caritas, aiding the setting up of a kindergarten for autistic children with the Iklin parish, as well as general necessities of people who find themselves in need.

Providing aid to people who cannot afford to be buried, for example, as well as the distribution of food, remain key elements to helping people live a life of dignity.

The fresco depicting Ġerolama Ciantar by Emvin Cremona on the exterior dome of the oratory. Photo: Daniel CiliaThe fresco depicting Ġerolama Ciantar by Emvin Cremona on the exterior dome of the oratory. Photo: Daniel Cilia

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