The Chapelle Ardente at St John’s Co-Cathedral, a magnificent wooden gem of Maltese history, has been saved from ruin after it spent some 20 years rotting in an underground crypt.

Its size gives an indication of the complexity of the project

The intricate, 10-metre high baroque catafalque – a raised platform used during funerals – was last used at Valletta’s cathedral in 1963 but then relegated to a crypt in 1990.

It took months of careful restoration costing €60,000 to bring what is possibly the only surviving specimen of its kind on the island back from the brink, curator Cynthia de Giorgio, from the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation, said.

Soaring to a height of 10 metres and with places to hold 230 candles, the structure was originally made to stand in the centre of the cathedral during solemn requiems to commemorate the demise of popes and grand masters and important public figures associated with Catholic countries, such as kings, queens and cardinals.

The catafalque was made during the reign of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena and was intended for his funeral, after having been commissioned in 1726 to Italian architect Romano Carapecchia.

When Grand Master Vilhena died in 1736 it was erected opposite the high altar in the centre of the church.

It was manufactured by Maltese craftsman Michele Camilleri who at that time was the head carpenter for the Order, the foundation said.

The aim was to replace the existing catafalque, which was then considered outdated in style, and to introduce a touch of baroque exuberance to the previously rather austere funeral services held on the demise of a grand master.

With the advent of the neoclassical style a more simplistic ritual was adopted for funerals and the elaborate baroque catafalque was abandoned. Eventually, in 1990, it was stored away in the Bartolott crypt within the cathedral.

It has suffered from extensive wood rot and wood worm infestation. Although the restoration was by far the biggest challenge, another task lay ahead – assembling the soaring structure. Its size gives an indication of the complexity of the project, Ms de Giorgio said.

A thorough cleaning involved the removal of old candle wax and varnishes, as well as a considerable amount of over-painting carried out at some stage. This process revealed the original decorative scheme which was artistically of a much higher standard than later additions.

This was followed by consolidating the cracks and joints and replacing missing parts.

The wood used was spruce which was decorated with several funerary symbols such as skulls and bones. Some parts were also painted to give the illusion of prestigious woods such as walnut and ebony, a technique called finta-vera.

It was last assembled in 1963 to commemorate the death of Pope John XXIII.

The catafalque will be a leading exhibit at the cathedral during Notte Bianca in Valletta on Saturday.

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