On our island, the devotion to the painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the basilica sanctuary in Valletta dates back many years.
When the Carmelites entered Valletta after the Great Siege in 1570, they built a church dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel which was completed in 1591. The church attracted many people for various reasons.
Since the creation of the painting, devotion towards Our Lady was significant both in terms of the number of people who used to gather at the church as well as in terms of the amount of donations given in the form of necklaces, earrings and crowns of gold and silver that endowed this painting.
The first mention of the first crowned painting in Malta, that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the basilica sanctuary in Valletta, was made during the pastoral visit of Inquisitor General Mgr Gregorio Salviati in June of 1755.
During his visit, he recorded the following: “The main altar is dedicated to the Holy Virgin of Mount Carmel. The painting, which is about a fathom (qama) and six spans (ixbar) high (11.15 feet) and nine spans wide (7.73 feet), depicts mainly Our Lady who in her left arm is holding the child Jesus, while with her right arm is giving the Holy Scapular to St Simon Stock standing by her right side. To her left are the virgin saints, St Agatha and St Lucy. In the lower part of the painting are depicted the souls in purgatory. The person who painted this valuable painting, which is much venerated and endowed with many gifts of gold and silver, is unknown to the friars of this priory.”
Nowadays however, the figure of St Lucy is not visible anymore. The last time there was mention of her in any historical church documents was in the Inventory List of 1836.
The artist of the painting and when it was made is a mystery. In one of his studies, the historian and author Fr Serafin Borg notes that the Carmelite Fr Lawrenz Sammut was quoted as saying: “As we were able to figure out from some old documents it is evident that Fr Ġwann Vella acquired the painting in Sicily and it was already old. The painting was acquired when the church was being built.”
It is unfortunate that Fr Sammut did not mention which old documents he was referring to.
The coronation of Our Lady in the painting took place on July 15, 1881. At that time many old paintings around the world which the faithful had a great devotion towards were being crowned
Furthermore, Fr Borg mentions that when the church was finally built, the painting was not placed above the main altar straight away, and instead of it there was another painting. This, he believed, was because the painting had not been finished yet.
Fr Anastasju Ronci believed that the painting dated back to the end of the 1500s or early 1600s, and stated that his theory was based on the fact that the painting was mentioned by chance in old priory books. However, he too failed to mention which books he was referring to.
Today we know that the painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was mentioned twice in old priory books. The first time was in a purchases ledger on March 4, 1594, in which was written: “Per una corda per tela per il quatro del altare maggiore tari dui et grana tridici”, which means, rope for canvas or cloth or curtain for the painting of the main altar.
These words may mean that the friars acquired rope prior to the making of the painting to stretch the canvas which would become the painting of the main altar. It could also be that they acquired rope for a curtain to cover the painting.
The second time it was mentioned was in an income ledger, on the May 22, 1599, where, in Italian, it is written: “we received from Mr Frangisk d’Amico, to have Masses said at the altar of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: this we started last Saturday, the 20th of this month and we paid the donation for every Mass, 10 grani and four tari ”.
Fr Borg said the extensively detailed description of Mass taking place every Saturday at the altar of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it leads him to believe that there was something new worth commemorating, as there already were Saturday Masses taking place, such as the foundation of Salvatore de Navis. This leads him to believe that they were commemorating the placing of the painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at the main altar.
In 1856, the painter or restorer Paul Cuschieri took the painting to his home in Tarxien to have it restored. In 1978 when the painting was restored again by Samwel Bugeja he found a nose painted behind St Agatha, which could only have belonged to St Lucy who had been mentioned in the report of Mgr Salviati in 1755 and mentioned in various other accounts, such as the inventory accounts of jewellery placed on the three saints.
We are led to believe that this change in the painting occurred when it was restored by Cuschieri at the time when the church’s inside facade was completely changed and covered with marble. During this restoration process, it was not only St Lucy who was cut out from the painting but also the angels’ feet and partial wing, the back of St Simon Stock and the back of St Agatha.
Today the painting measures 10 feet, 8¼ inches by seven feet and quarter of an inch. Recently the painting was restored by Godwin Cutajar of Fontana.
Studies conducted to date have still not revealed who the painting is by. However the painter Rafel Bonnici Cali believed that the painting was by the artist Filippo Paladini, who was living in Malta at the end of the 16th century. Perhaps future studies will reveal who the painter of this beautiful masterpiece really was.
Besides the interesting history of the painting we must not fail to mention the coronation of Our Lady in the painting, which took place on July 15, 1881, by Bishop of Malta Carmelo Scicluna by decree of the chapter of the basilica of St Peter in Rome on June 19, 1880.
At that time many old paintings around the world which the faithful had a great devotion towards, such as the Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Malta, were being crowned. Several prelates of the church took part in the coronation ceremony.
In 1981, the 100th anniversary of the coronation of the painting was celebrated. A novena in honour of Our Lady was held in Malta by the provincials, the priests of their order and their congregations. Cardinal Antonio Samure and Carmelite bishop Telesforo Cioli also took part, in addition to the Archbishop of Malta Mgr Joseph Mercieca and Bishop of Gozo Mgr Nikol Cauchi.
Fr Hermann Duncan is a member of the community of Carmelite friars in Balluta.