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Embroidery artefacts at the Senglea Basilica

Chasuble and three dalmatics (1886) from the set of liturgical vestments. 

Chasuble and three dalmatics (1886) from the set of liturgical vestments. 

‘Ecclesiastical embroidery’ refers to the fine stitch work executed exclusively for use in worship such as altar linens and vestments. Scripts, such as the Liber Pontificalis, confirm that liturgical vestments, enriched and ornately embroidered, can be traced back to early Christianity.

Sopratovaglia (1894) for the altar of the Holy Trinity.Sopratovaglia (1894) for the altar of the Holy Trinity.

Nonetheless, no special ordinances have ever been issued by the Church in this regard, either as to their material, colour or design. Good taste, however, requires that such embroidery should harmonise with the character and colour-effect of the vestment.

Magnificently embroidered vestments appeared early in the 11th century and, up to the 13th century, embroidery in gold thread was the main ornamentation used for ecclesiastical purposes, reaching its fullest development in the first half of the 15th century.

While such artefacts coming from Spain, Germany and Belgium are rare in Maltese churches, French and Italian workmanship abounds. These latter proveniences adopt different systems. In the French method, the embroidery was knitted onto a pattern cut out of cardboard or leather upon which the gold thread was woven. The Italian system used cotton to bulge the embroidery, over which the gold thread was applied by stitches, forming the so-called vein.

Locally, besides a few industrial establishments, the main providers of such artefacts were convents, where nuns dedicated hours to this skill, thus offering a living for the community. Normally, local artists prepared the required designs.

The early 19th-century tabernacle cover.The early 19th-century tabernacle cover.

Senglea’s basilica, which is dedicated to the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, boasts some of the finest embroidery works, particularly those woven by gold threads, to be found in Maltese churches.

This article is not intended to present a study of every single embroidery work in this church, but seeks to give a brief overview of them all.

Some of the works in this parish church were produced overseas, especially in the French city of Lyon, when Malta imported works of extreme precision that surpassed in art and beauty what was produced elsewhere. Indeed, Maltese churches yearned for the best quality available on the international market.

As an example of this, one must mention the set of richly gold-embroidered white lamé liturgical vestments worn solely on the solennità della Natività della Beata Vergine Maria, Senglea’s titular feast. Commissioned by the chapter of this collegiate church and completed by 1886, the set comprises a chasuble, three dalmatics, seven copes – one for the main celebrant and six for assistants – a humeral veil and a lectern cover with their respective accessories.

Processional banner (2008) of the Confraternity of the Holy Crucifix.Processional banner (2008) of the Confraternity of the Holy Crucifix.

The embroidery’s texture and actual technique suggest that they were manufactured in Lyon, the preferred centre for such commissions in Malta at the time. The dalmatics and copes have suffered greatly through use, but the chasuble, humeral veil and lectern cover, together with the other smaller pieces, such as maniples, stoles, the burse and chalice veil, are in pristine condition.

Coupled to this set there exists a gold-embroidered tabernacle curtain which the French production house had sent as a sample of how the final product would look like, and this before the commission’s final agreement was reached.

Together with this set, there are two tabernacle covers both made of gold thread embroidery on white lamé. The oldest one, a late 18th-century workmanship, is today in a pitiful state. The other, made in the early 19th century, is in a relatively good condition and still adorns the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Senglea’s parish church is also graced by a set of 13 altar cloths with gold thread embroidery on red velvet. The one placed on the altar of the Holy Trinity was made in 1894, in Lyon, France, following a design prepared by Vincenzo Aristide Bonnici, an exponent of the Senglea family of Bonnici artists.

The altar cloths placed on the altar of Our Lady Sacro Cuor and on that of Our Lady of Sorrows were also made in France in 1895 and 1908 respectively. The design of the latter, originally belonging to the high altar of the collegiate before it was replaced with a papal altar after the church was declared a basilica in 1921, is attributed to the Sicilian Vincenzo Cardona.

Another altar cloth, dating from the late 19th century, belonging to the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, is extensively damaged and so is no longer displayed.

In 1912, Senglea-born designer Michele DeGiovanni prepared a sketch for another two altar cloths: those placed on the altar of St Francis de Paul (originally intended for the altar of the Assumption) and on that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In 1915, Gioacchino Galea designed the altar cloth that today is placed on the altar of Our Lady of the Shackles, but originally intended for the altar of St Joseph.

We are duty-bound to preserve and look after the heritage we have inherited from our forefathers

In 1965, A. Treeby adapted the 1915 original by Gioacchino Galea for an altar cloth for the altar of Jesus the Redeemer. This was embroidered by the Sisters of Charity at Ta’ Cini Institute.

Salvu Bugeja (1920-2010) was a designer of his own fancy and the interpreter craftsman who gave soul to his designs. One of Malta’s leading designers, his works form an artistic patrimony that will surely also be appreciated by artistic connoisseurs in future.

Sopratovaglia (1908) formerly for the collegiate church’s high altar.Sopratovaglia (1908) formerly for the collegiate church’s high altar.

The Senglea basilica is fortunate to possess quite a significant number of embroidery artefacts that were carried out following intricate designs created by his charcoal pencil. All these designs were executed by Griscti’s Embroideries Ltd, of Valletta.

Highly charming are the altar cloths placed on the altars of the Bambina, of St Joseph, of Our Lady of the Rosary and of the Assumption, made in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986 respectively.

In 2002, the main altar in the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix was embellished with a superb altar cloth made in France. This was the last piece designed by Bugeja for Senglea’s parish church and thus it remains a token for his affection towards this basilica.

In 1968, the monogram ‘AM’ (Ave Maria), together with lilies and other floral motives, was gold-embroidered on white silk for an altar cloth placed on the altar in front of the statue of Maria Bambina. While, in 1974, the Franciscan Sisters renovated the gold-embroidered altar cloth (originally made in 1930) which covers the high altar for the titular feast, in 1994, Bugeja adapted its design and prepared a drawing for the covering of the two side tables on the presbytery.

Processional banner (1999) of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.Processional banner (1999) of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.

Three other projects of gold thread embroidery, finely made by Griscti after designs skilfully prepared by Salvu Bugeja are: the red velvet valance for the main door curtain (1987), the white lamé valance for the high altar baldacchino (1992), and the blue velvet pelmet for the niche of the statue of Maria Bambina (1995).

Anyone who enters this astounding basilica during the first week of September, when it will be graciously decorated for the titular feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will also be able to see a set of eight processional banners, set against the marble pillars of the church’s nave. These belong to the various confraternities erected in this parish. Placed prominently at the centre of each banner is the ensign of the respective confraternity, made of gold thread and coloured embroidery on red, white, blue or violet damask.

Due to damage caused by habitual usage, most of these banners were restored during the past 30 years. Two were made anew. In 1999, the new banner for the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament was assigned to Griscti’s Embroideries Ltd, who, with gold thread, replicated the original design on new red damask. In 2008, a new violet banner for the Confraternity of the Holy Crucifix was made in France after an original design for its gold thread embroidery was charted by Pio Mangion.

Sopratovaglia (2002) for the altar of the Holy Crucifix.Sopratovaglia (2002) for the altar of the Holy Crucifix.

Other artefacts worth mentioning are the blue silk ornamental banner with gold embroidery pertaining to the Xirka tal-Isem Imqaddes ta’ Alla (Community of the Holy Name of Jesus) founded in Senglea in 1931, and the silk banner with Malta’s national colours and with the embroidered words Sanctvarivm B. M. V. Nascentis In Civ. Senglea Archid. Meliten (Sanctuary of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Senglea City – Archdiocese of Malta). This was made for the Marian Year 1954.

Directly related with the Good Friday procession, in 1907, a design of a crown of thorns was embroidered running along the edge of the red velvet mantle placed on the shoulder of the statue of the Ecce Homo. One finds also the violet velvet ornamental banner, made in 1953 with the letters S.P.Q.R. embroidered on it with gold thread. In 1995, Griscti’s firm, following designs by Bugeja, embroidered the white lamé valance decorating the ornamental bed of the Entombment.

The precious embroidery works in Senglea’s parish church form part of the broad and valuable patrimony we have received from our ancestors. They are the result of a collective effort between the designers and embroidery manufacturers. We are duty-bound to preserve and look after the heritage we have inherited from our forefathers. It is a legacy filled with love towards the temple of God and crowned with veneration towards the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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