On August 17, 1815, the erudite art collector and connoisseur Count Saverio Marchese (1757-1833) visited St George parish church at C. Fornaro o sia Casal Curmi [Qormi].
Upon beholding “il quadro rappresentante La Vergine Santissima in aria col Divin Bambino in braccio, circondata da varj angioli, e sotto da una parte San Lorenzo e dall’altra S. Nicola da Bari” [the painting representing the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus in her arms, surrounded by angels, and below on one side St Lawrence and St Nicholas of Bari on the other], he remarked that it is “una delle piu’ belle opere di Stefano Erardi…” [one of the most beautiful works by Stefano Erardi]. This is an extract from Machese’s unpublished Notizie Riguardanti L’Isola di Malta e Gozo […] Belle Arti at the Mdina Cathedral Archives.
Marchese is here describing the Our Lady of Graces altarpiece that once hung in Qormi’s parish church of St George. He was indeed correct in assigning this work to the Maltese artist Erardi (1630-1716). His description of the contents of this canvas painting was also precise – save for one detail. The male saint he refers to as St Nicholas of Bari (standing on the right) is, in fact, St Blaise.
Marchese’s inaccuracy is justified. He was misled by the three little spheres propped on a closed Gospel book in the saint’s right hand. He must have mistaken them for the three bags of gold coins associated with an act of generosity by St Nicholas, who spared three daughters of a penurious father from prostitution after secretly leaving him three bags of dowry money. Standing by a mitre, wearing a prelate’s vestments and holding a pastoral staff, the elderly, balding St Blaise is represented with all the insignia that are also synonymous with St Nicholas of Bari since he was Bishop of Myra (Asia Minor) during early Christianity.
As St Blaise was a bishop (of Sebastea or modern Sivas, central Turkey), his official apparel in this painting is consequently no longer a moot point. However, given the absence of the two crossed candles or the steel combs, his instruments of martyrdom, by which St Blaise is normally represented, what corroborates the identity of this particular saint?
First of all, St Blaise was highly venerated by Qormi dwellers. Secondly, pastoral visitation reports dating from 1635 have without fail mentioned this saint (and not St Nicholas of Bari) as featuring in the Our Lady of Graces, once installed in the eponymous altar that was first founded in c.1615 by a certain Mario Zammit, the person responsible for introducing this Marian devotion to Qormi.
From Josef Debattista’s unpublished BA (Hons) History of Art dissertation (University of Malta, 2002) on the art collection at Qormi parish museum, we learn about the annual tradition of giving out candles and bread for free on the feast day of St Blaise. Debattista rightly bridges the latter part of this yearly custom with the three little globules in Erardi’s painting. They are not bags of gold but three small loaves of bread. This immediately shows how Erardi’s St Blaise, shorn of his more conventional attributes, was fashioned to be exclusive to Qormi’s large community of bakers, bread vendors and windmill operators who, for a long time, were among the custodians of the Virgin of Graces altar.
Of Spanish birth, the young St Lawrence (left) is identified by the iron grill on which he was allegedly burned alive after defying the orders of the prefect of Rome. He wears the dalmatic of a deacon, as it was in this capacity that Pope Sixtus II engaged him to conduct missionary work. In his right hand, the palm of martyrdom, a sure testimonial of his ultimate sacrifice, completes his iconography.
Dating to the late 1650s/early 1660s, this painting is a ‘sacra conversazione’ (or holy conversation) where the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, on cushion-like clouds in the upper tier, interact with the two buttressing male saints that occupy the lowermost register of the immediate foreground. Imploring for the intercession of the Virgin Mary of Graces for their deliverance, souls trapped in the cleansing fires of purgatory appear in the middle distance between the two saints in attendance.
Instead of characteristically dispensing her maternal milk to provide relief to the distressed souls, Mary rests her left hand on a box, which is actually symbolic of the treasure of graces she is about to grant them. While the popularity of this Marian devotion is considerably long-standing, as well as that of the souls in purgatory, the amalgamation of these two pieties, possibly preceding the beginning of the 17th century, is curiously unique to Malta.
While the main protagonists of this religious painting are connected by a triangular composition, with the Madonna’s head at its apex, they remain nonetheless quite detached. This is because of their restrained poses and curbed gestures.
Lest the grounding solidity of this arrangement be disturbed, heightened drama is totally avoided. Subtle glance exchanges, by which St Lawrence silently dialogues with Baby Jesus, and St Blaise acknowledges the Virgin’s gaze towards him, are favoured over highly emotional and rhetorical content.
Displaying partiality for a conservative treatment of subject, for symmetry and clarity of execution, Erardi was undoubtedly conversant with Bolognese classicism. This was a style that emerged in the late 16th century and held sway during the early 17th, while sowing the seeds for the Early Baroque idiom to develop. Smoothness of finish rather than painterly textures accommodates Erardi’s accent on linearity, at times hard-edged. A diffused warm quality of light illuminates the male saints as equally as the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child whose heavenly realm is backdropped by a mustard yellow glow and defined by a circular formation of clouds inhabited by adoring and playful cherubs and putti.
Aside from all these features, more characteristics give away Erardi’s visual calligraphy. We can easily discern his facial type for the Madonna, with her elongated and oval-shaped visage, rounded eyes and lowered lids; his accomplished handling of the oil medium as attested by the silky sheen of the red, mustard, mint-green, pale pink and deep blue drapery surfaces and their delineated folds; his passion for detail, such as the rendering dedicated to the lacework pattern at the hem of St Blaise’s tunic; the polished finish of the milky-fair skin tones; his sound skills of draughtsmanship as revealed by the modelling of his figures; and his signature strikingly bold colour scheme.
Opting for an overall sober arrangement for this painting is another telltale sign of Erardi’s authorship. It is yet another example of an uncomplicated composition that rests easy on the viewer’s eyes. The difference between the upper celestial and lower terrestrial areas cannot be more unambiguous. All the main and secondary actors, as well as the salient parts that partake of this religious image, are all neatly staged and segregated. All these elements betray Erardi’s familiarity with Counter-Reformation precepts intended to facilitate the legibility of the depicted subject.
As already mentioned, this painting leans towards the classical tenets established by Annibale and Agostino Carracci, the founders of the Bolognese School. It also has the residual pictorial flavour of an outmoded Late Mannerist idiom, possibly assimilated from the provincial Maltese artist Filippo Dingli, whose paintings at times found their fraternal twin in Erardi’s, suggesting also his instrumental role in the latter’s early formation.
In an indirect manner, this former altarpiece has a connection with one of the exponents of the Bolognese School, Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). The Madonna-and-Child group in the Qormi work is an adaptation of the same figures in the Italian artist’s Virgin of the Rosary with St Dominic and St Gennaro (Chiesa del Rosario, Afragola, Naples). Unless Erardi had seen this altarpiece (dated 1638), with his own eyes, a print after Lanfranco’s painting would have been his most direct source, most likely the etching by the printmaker Francesco Palmiero (active 1658-1678), found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Erardi’s painting career was launched around a decade before Mattia Preti (1613-1699) settled permanently in Malta from the 1660s. Despite that Erardi’s brush could not outshine the commanding Baroque expression of the Calabrian master, who prevailed for the next 40 years, he was not in the least eclipsed by him. Suffice it to mention that the remarkable titular altarpiece and lunette paintings Erardi executed in 1667 for the Chapel of Germany in St John’s Conventual Church indeed scream volumes about his intrepid networking among influential circles of patronage that rewarded him with such a once-in-a-lifetime commission.
Instead of perishing into oblivion like many Maltese artists who saw in Preti an intimidating force to contend with, Erardi persevered and truly succeeded in carving out his name in Malta art’s history. He was entrusted with many prestigious commissions and produced numerous canvases that, though incongruent with Preti’s theatrical Baroque style, generally adhered to an unwavering visual vocabulary that was intensified or tempered according to the demands and echelons of his clientele, be they the Church, the Order of St John or wealthy private patrons. Erardi was in such demand that he ran a bottega that was probably located in Valletta.
Born in 1630 to ‘mastro’ Sebastiano Herardo and Paulica Xerri (who married in 1629), Stefano most likely found his very first mentor in his own father whose title is indicative of an occupation in craftsmanship. Later in life, Stefano followed in his father’s footsteps by guiding his own son, Alessio (c.1669-1727), the aspiring apple that had not fallen far from the Erardi artistic tree.
When Stefano took up the brush as his profession, he inevitably benefitted from his father’s mingling with artistic communities and popular artists of the day. Among them was the Italian Late Mannerist artist Gaspare Formica (d. 1647), who in 1630 had been engaged to paint the old titular altarpiece of St George and the Dragon for Qormi’s St George parish church. Proof of the close ties between Sebastiano and Gaspare lies in the latter’s role as witness to the former’s first marriage to Gratia di Tuccio in 1622. In view of this connection, one speculates whether Formica’s later links with Qormi paved the way for Erardi’s eventual commission of the Our Lady of Graces altarpiece.
Examination, conservation and restoration
Since the mid-17th century, the ‘chef-d’oeuvre’ in question has endured various changes that affected the depicted image, including agents of decay. Together with the natural oxidisation and ageing of materials by time, preliminary scientific examinations carried out at the Amy Sciberras Conservators – Fine Arts Restoration laboratory, clearly showed numerous retouching interventions and overpaint found at different levels/depths, sandwiched between the application of separate varnish coatings. Some of this overpaint, altering Erardi’s original work, was even found directly on the original deteriorated surface.
Analysis carried out using ultraviolet fluorescence, infrared photography and false colour infrared, indicated that such interventions occurred at different points in time. In fact, Debattista, in his aforementioned dissertation, refers to more than one modification to the painting in the 19th century, including a restoration by a painter, Antonio Bonnici, who on August 7, 1874, was paid 36 scudi.
Throughout the years, the numerous varnish coatings applied during past interventions had severely yellowed. The painting’s readability was further worsened by the altered overpaint, concealing significant areas of the original, and by the abundant wax drippings splattered over its surface, an attestation to the devotion to Our Lady of Graces.
A burnt area causing a hole through the paint layer, original canvas and old lining canvas, was also probably the result of candles placed too close. A significant tear was additionally present close to the figure of Our Lady.
The latest conservation interventions carried out between August 2022 and August 2023 by Amy Sciberras Conservators thus involved the removal of these various past interventions and alterations, bringing out once again Erardi’s work. Solvents and solvent gels were used to thin down and clean overpaint and aged varnishes, to the desired level. Since the old lining had tears and lacunae, this was removed and old organic glues were cleaned from the fibres of the original canvas.
Lacunae were inlaid with new, similar canvas, and cut threads were aligned under magnification and re-woven. Consolidation and lining treatments, using current conservation methods, reinstated adhesion and stability. Losses in the upper paint and preparation layers were infilled and chromatically integrated using reversible varnish colours, allowing the viewer to admire and fully comprehend this unique work by one of our greatest artists.
This conservation-restoration project was entrusted to Amy Sciberras Conservators – Fine Arts Restoration by the Fratellanza tas-Santissimu Sagrament of St George parish church in Qormi and coordinated by Joseph A. Bugeja. It was made possible through EU funding under the Rural Development Programme for Malta 2014-2020 and the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector under the NGO Co-Financing Fund.
Sciberras thanks her team, including photographers Manuel Ciantar and Suzanne Ciantar Ferrito, George Sciberras, Joseph F. Grima, Krystle Farrugia, and all involved.
Amy Sciberras directs a team of conservators and has been entrusted with restoration projects of national and international importance. She may be contacted via www.amysciberras.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bernadine Scicluna is an art historian. She may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.