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Treasures below the ground

New restoration works at St Agatha Catacombs reveal crypt’s rich artistic history

Many of the frescoes at St Agatha’s crypt have been restored to their former glory. Photos: Chris Sant Fournier

Many of the frescoes at St Agatha’s crypt have been restored to their former glory. Photos: Chris Sant Fournier

In the heat of summer, the grounds of St Paul’s Missionary College are as awash with life as though the school year was already in session. The voices of children ring throughout the halls and grounds, their enthusiasm not dampened by the oppressive weather.

Only a stone’s throw away, in the cool shade of the convent, is a quiet enclave that houses some of our country’s most significant works of art. The catacombs of St Agatha, lying beneath a chapel that also bears its patron’s name, are not only important landmarks in the history of Catholic culture in the Maltese islands but are also home to priceless murals and frescoes that decorate the walls of this ancient place of worship.

Up until some time ago, the frescoes had fallen into a state of disrepair, the passage of time as well as the adverse climate conditions having not been too kind to the preservation of the works.

Through the concerted effort of the community surrounding the catacombs, however, many of the frescoes have been restored to their former glory, with future works planned and active conservation methods in place to keep the conditions for their preservation ideal.

The efforts of three men stand out in the success of this feat: Brother Dominic Borg, curator of St Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs Museum; George Farrugia, who carried out the restoration works; and Alfred Attard Micallef, of the Lions Club Sliema.

Following in the footsteps of the late Fr Victor Camilleri, whose work in the excavation and documentation of the archaeological findings of the crypt prove seminal in its preservation, their partnership and dedication towards the project has been vital. Thanks to their interventions, frescoes that had faded and altered due to climate conditions and previous restoration attempts, have now returned to their former glory.

“You can not take the potential damage seriously,” says Mr Farrugia.

Because of the conditions in the underground crypt, measures to prevent further damage had to be taken on top of the restoration work.

“The stone is alive, water is always flowing, salt rises to the surface. In order to prevent the exchange of humidity and the temperature, we have to monitor and work on them often,” he added.

The crypt has a colourful history that documents the culture of worship in medieval Christendom.

The faces of the votive frescoes were slashed and scratched off by corsairs in the 16th century.The faces of the votive frescoes were slashed and scratched off by corsairs in the 16th century.

Said to have lived during the 13th century, St Agatha, a girl of 15 hailing from one of Sicily’s noble families, made a vow of chastity and rebuked the advances of Quintianus, a low-born Roman prefect.

Knowing she was a Christian and it being the time of the Decian persecution, he had her arrested.

Legend holds that Agatha briefly escaped to Malta, where she went down to pray in the crypt that now bears her name. Ultimately, she returned to her homeland where she faced horrific torture in her martyrdom, most notably the cutting off of her breasts with pincers.

The crypt has a colourful history that documents the culture of worship in medieval Christendom

Eventually dying in prison, she is, among other things, the patron saint of breast cancer patients and bell founders. From that period on, the crypt enjoyed an extended period of activity.

Dating suggests that the catacombs were cut from the rock between the 3rd and 8th centuries, during the Byzantine era, and then abandoned during the Arab occupation. Their significance lies in the fact that they are the earliest Paleo-Christian shrines to survive the Arab era, which saw the spread of subterranean churches to avoid detection.

While tales of St Agatha visiting the crypt herself go unconfirmed, it is likely to have been founded by immigrants from Catania.

The 12th century saw the crypt’s first expansion and use as a shrine.

A second expansion in the mid-15th century also saw the biggest surge of activity, with the new chamber being decorated with votive paintings of saints and spilling over on to older frescoes that date back to the 12-13th century era.

The crypt features 13 depictions of St Agatha.The crypt features 13 depictions of St Agatha.

The crypt features 13 depictions of St Agatha among an overall 30 images of saints. These frescoes were commissioned by followers of St Agatha and also depict saints associated with her. A trio of frescoes feature St Lucy, St Venera and St Agatha, representing virgin martyrdom, and an image of St Leonard, the patron saint of slaves, holding chains in solidarity with captives, perhaps given relevance by the ongoing persecution by the Ottomans at the time.

Other saints featured include St Anthony of Egypt, St Margaret, St Blase and several bishops, one of which may also depict St Publius.

In the 16th century, the chapel was vandalised by corsairs. Likely fuelled by the Muslim aversion to the depiction of human figures in art, the faces of the votive frescoes were slashed and scratched off.

One, however, managed to escape the fate of its fellows. A votive by the doorway, depicting none other than St Agatha herself, was likely covered by a layer of carbonated salt at the time and appeared as white as the surrounding walls. Today it stands out brightly, the only whole image in a room of faceless saints.

Mr Farrugia, supported by Brother Dominic and the Lions Club Sliema, has put in over three decades of work into the project.

“We’re blessed that it’s underground because it would have all been washed away by now,” he said.

“They were some of the least exposed frescoes in Malta, both in terms of vandalism as well as weather conditions. It’s maintained more or less the same conditions since the moment it was painted. They were made competently and well, and they’ve survived a lot to remain in the conditions you see them today.”

A careful process

George Farrugia shares the methods with which he went about bringing the artwork in the crypt back to its original form.

“It’s important to have vision,” the restorer says.

One of the most vital steps is ensuring that steps are taken to avoid incurring further damage. To this end, many measures have been implemented to reduce water currents in the crypt, including the closing off of doorways and the installation of lighting that keeps exposure and temperature constant, which also prevents the growth of mould.

Mr Farrugia then takes stock of the work’s condition and gives it more structural integrity to prevent it from coming apart, after which the cleaning process begins.

Cleaning often proves to be challenging, as the build-up of salt and carbonates solidify and become challenging to remove. Some sections, Mr Farrugia contends, even required the use of a dental grinder.

Once one gets closer to the original work, cleaning continues more delicately with a scalpel.

The second phase sees the retouching of images.

“You try to improve the aesthetics by making it easier for the work to be read by viewers but without incorporating your own style,” Mr Farrugia adds.

The work in the catacombs was done using a technique called tratteggio, where light strokes were made in areas that could be retouched. Where this wasn’t possible, the work was left neutral or given very light colouring that would be immediately identified as false in the future.

A previous restoration, carried out by Giuseppe Calleja in 1881, painted over the originals in a similar style. These were also removed in order to uncover the original works below.

“I could easily redraw them the way they were, just like Giuseppe Calleja did,” Mr Farrugia said, “but that would mean erasing part of the history. I’m here to restore the original.”

Lastly, a coat of varnish was applied for protection, although herethis is slightly superfluous as the majority of the damage comes from within.

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