Art lovers are mourning the loss of museum curator Dennis Vella who will be remembered for his tireless contribution to the promotion of modern and contemporary works.

Described as "a pillar of art" and "a man of great intellect" by those who knew him, Mr Vella lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday night aged 56.

"Malta has lost a great man in terms of contemporary and modern art as we don't have anyone so knowledgeable on the subject," explained Bernardine Scicluna, his close friend and colleague.

Mr Vella was the curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Museum of Fine Arts as well as an art historian, critic and University lecturer.

"He had the gift of encouraging people whether they were budding artists or University students for who he was a guiding light... His optimism remained till the end and, even after he was diagnosed with cancer, he spread hope to all those around him," Ms Scicluna said.

"He was very special to me," she said in tears as she explained that they were former partners. "When I realised he was nearing the end I wanted to give him something in return for all he had given me, so I made sure I was by his side. I am greatly privileged to have known him," she said.

She smiled as she recalled his cynical humour and his immense disorganisation.

"You could detect where he was by following the piles of papers and books and looking behind them," she said, adding he dedicated most of his energy to one day setting up a contemporary art museum.

Artist Isabelle Borg suggested naming any such future museum Dennis Vella, after the man who dedicated his life to the genre. Apart from being her friend, Mr Vella had believed in her and her work when she was a budding artist.

"He was not one to work from his office but would go down on his hands and knees to mount an exhibition. He was quite unconventional in many of his ideas. He allowed his students to have their own opinion and did not overload the subject with theory," she recalled.

She too mentioned his unique humour: "His cutting perception and rude wit were with him till the end".

Mr Vella's friend Nicholas De Piro said: "He was a very sensitive man but not soppy... I will miss him genuinely... Dennis was not like everyone else. He had the courage of his convictions and would stick to his beliefs during debates on art and clearly explain to people why he was doing so."

Museum of Fine Arts senior curator Sandro Debono recalled Mr Vella's "phenomenal passion" for art. "Even when he was in hospital he was constantly phoning me and asking about exhibitions... It was a privilege to have worked with him," he said, adding that a condolence book had been set up at the museum.

As the news of Mr Vella's death spread yesterday, tributes poured in from friends and colleagues.

The Culture Ministry expressed its condolences and said Mr Vella's passing away left a void in Malta's art scene. The Nationalist Party and the National Book Council also expressed their admiration for his contribution to art.

Mr Vella's funeral Mass will be said today at 2.30 p.m. at the St Julians parish church.