The white Carrara marble sculpture portraying the Madonna holding the Christ Child that was situated behind the main altar of the Observant Franciscan church of Ta’ Ġieżu in Rabat has been conserved and restored at the Prevarti Ltd laboratory.

The life-size Madonna and Child sculpture will be returned to the church this week, to be placed on the second altar on the north aisle where it was intended to be placed after the 1757 reconstruction of the Rabat church.

After being removed from the church on September 15, and as part of the research and prior to the cleaning tests and conservation, the sculpture has been subjected to intense photographic documentation, tests under UV and Gamma rays, as well as 3D scans.

The sculpture is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, produced in Messina by then 26-year-old Palermitan sculptor Antonello Gagini (1478–1536), a contemporary of the great Michelangelo.

The statue was purposely ordered by the Franciscans for the newly built church of Ta’ Ġieżu in Rabat which was constructed in the late 1490s. It was commissioned on February 23, 1504, 26 years before the Knights of the Order of St John came to Malta.

It was commissioned together with a marble pedestal that today survives in the national collection, at MUŻA in Valletta. The pedestal has carved reliefs showing the Stigmatisation of St Francis on the front, and flanking it are two three-quarter length figures of St Francis and St Paul, the latter the patron saint of the Maltese islands. 

The sculpture is the oldest in the possession of the Observant Franciscan Order of Friars Minor in Malta and is  much-venerated object that gave the church its name, Santa Maria di Gesù. It was worshipped by Grand Master Fra Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam during his many stays with the Franciscans. 

The 1504 document of the sculpture states that the Madonna was to hold the Christ Child in her left arm and a flower in her right hand, which is today lost, along with several of the fingers on this same hand.

More damage has been sustained to the sculpture at an unknown point in its 500-year history. There were chips to the folds on the Madonna’s mantle, the Child’s fingers on the blessing right hand was broken off, and the Madonna’s head was completely detached from the rest of the sculpture and repaired with two metal rods, as has been discovered when it was studied under Gamma rays.

The document also states that the sculpture, without the pedestal, was to be 6 palme tall, that is, about 154cm high. The sculpture currently measures about 153cm, and therefore conforms to the contracted height.

Although undocumented, this recent intervention revealed a hole between the Child’s hand and torso, in which, a flower or a bird would have been placed. This would have added to the sculpture’s religious iconography. 

The sculpture was also to receive blue and gold pigment where necessary. Traces of pigment could be noted on the side and back of the sculpture, however, upon cleaning these areas, more pigment was discovered hidden beneath a layer of plaster.

What has been revealed, and which has come as a surprise to restorers and researchers, are blue stylised floral motifs on the Madonna’s mantle, which must have been gilded. Gilding was also discovered on the Madonna and Child’s hair.

Some other pigment that was discovered must have been added in later centuries and is, therefore, not original. Moreover, a stylised floral design has emerged on the hemline of the Madonna’s mantle. This reveals that this sculpture was an elaborate one and where no expense was spared. In fact, the document reveals that it was to cost a considerable sum, that of 20 uncie.

All of these documented details, as well as the scientific analysis, were studied by Charlene Vella and final year undergraduate Art History student for her dissertation, Jamie Farrugia, who has also recreated the original pigments on the sculpture to indicate better what this sculpture originally looked like, with its gold and blue painted sections which have been largely lost over the last five centuries.

Farrugia’s analysis has also calculated the weight of the sculpture (without the pedestal), which is of over 380kg.

Several of Antonello’s Madonnas provide evidence for original polychromy. Among these are Observant Franciscan Madonna and Child sculptures in the Duomo of the town of Castroreale (province of Messina, Sicily) dating to 1500, and the 1504 one in Catanzaro (Calabria) known as the Madonna delle Grazie, which the Rabat sculpture is most similar to.

The first Observant Franciscan sculpture of the Madonna and Child that Antonello Gagini produced when he settled in Messina must be the 1498 Madonna delle Grazie for Nicotera (province of Vibo Valentia, Calabria).

This was to serve as a model for subsequent sculptures by Gagini. This sculpture betrays an intimate knowledge of Francesco Laurana’s (c.1430–1502) 1469 Palermo Cathedral Madonna and Child that had established a prototype that Domenico Gagini, Antonello’s father, had adopted for his own compositions.

This project was a collaboration between the Observant Franciscans from the Convent of St Mary of Jesus in Rabat and Charlene Vella from the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta and made possible thanks to funds obtained from the Majjistral Action Group Foundation under the LEADER Programme 2014-2020.

The funding was made available through the Majjistral Action Group Foundation Measure 1: Restoration of Assets and Sites of Artistic and Cultural Value.
All documentation, scientific analysis, cleaning, conservation and restoration have been entrusted to Prevarti Ltd. Timmy Gambin from the University of Malta Department of Classics and Archaeology carried out the initial 3D scans of the marble sculpture that can be viewed online here.


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