The proliferation of wayside chapels that dot the Maltese and Gozitan countryside is infinitely more complex and fascinating than their pastoral image might suggest.
Their history spanning more than five centuries (13th to 18th) provides an intriguing viewpoint for reflection, a period that stretches from the mysterious late Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment, when the Church’s suffocating excesses were being questioned all over Europe.
It is not easy to present in the Malta situation an overall interpretation of the different layers of historical data connected with these mostly humble, shrines.
Many of these wayside chapels later developed, through the privileged position of the Church, into sanctuaries providing immunity from arrest for criminals on the run.
It should be pointed out that in this instance, ecclesiastical immunity implied the right of any person, including criminals, to seek refuge in a Catholic place of worship; consequently the public authorities could not remove the person concerned, even if convicted of a crime. The history of these chapels became ironic when seen in the light of later events.
From their zenith in the 15th and early 16th centuries, when these cappelle emerged as catalysts for a vernacular architectural idiom and an incipient artistic culture, they plummeted to their nadir in the late 18th century, exposed to illicit acts, with the secular arm powerless to take action.
Irked by these grossly abused privileges, Grand Master Pinto, on the government’s behalf, protested vehemently to the Holy See through the Order’s ambassador in Rome.
In 1761, after long-drawn negotiations, ecclesiastical immunity was withdrawn from many of the rural chapels as indicated on the marble slab one can still see on their façade, stating “Non gode l’immunità ecclesiastica” (Does not enjoy ecclesiastical immunity).
Stripped of these dark episodes the primitive architecture of these early chapels imposed a newaesthetic standard on their construction, which was gradually perfected by Maltese master masons and craftsmen, an experience that later helped them develop our typical baroque medium throughout the Maltese archipelago.
It is no exaggeration to record that these wayside chapels encapsulate a cornucopia of details regarding vernacular art and architecture as well as patterns of human settlement.
In this regard the staggering number of these chapels, particularly in the limits of Rabat, Naxxar and Siġġiewi, with over 30 shrines, indicate a concentration of population in these fertile agricultural zones relatively far from the coastal areas and the danger posed by corsairs’ incursions.
The names of the Rabat chapels, which had their ecclesiastical immunity withdrawn, as officially listed, will suffice: Chiesa dell’ Assunzione di N. Sra. nel Giardino di Mons. Vesco.; Chiesa della Purificazione di N. Sra. vicino al Boschetto; Chiesa di San Antonio Abbate posta dentro il cortile del Palazzo del Boschetto; Chiesa della Natività denominata Ta’ Salip; Chiesa di San Antonio del Giardino del cimitero; Chiesa della B.V. In qda di Bingemma; Chiesa dell’Assunzione in qda del Mgiarro; Chiesa di S. Martino in qda della Bahrija; Chiesa della Concessione in qda di Ued Gherzuma; Chiesa della Natività di N. Sra. di monte calibbo (Mtaħleb); Chiesa di Sta Catarina ta dachla; Chiesa di S. Lucia della Mtarfa; Chiesa di S. Biagio; Chiesa di S. Giacomo; Chiesa della Natività di N. Sra; Chiesa di S. Nicola ta Gnien il far; Chiesa dell’Annunzazione di N. Sra ta Schiara.
By contrast, the scarcity of chapels in the north of the island, particularly before the Knights’ period, with some notable exceptions where the revered Mellieħa Sanctuary retained its ecclesiastical immunity, reveals a complete isolation from this area because of their exposure to brutal pillaging, slavery and other dangers.
It is to be observed that by the middle of the 16th century about 400 churches are recorded,including the medieval chapel on Comino and another on the tiny islet of Filfla, whose altarpiece is reputedly exhibited at the Żurrieq parish church.
The siting of some of these early shrines follows a prevalent Mediterranean pattern, a predilection for subterranean places as if the bowels of the earth enjoy supernatural powers.
For various reasons, not least the geological rock formation, the Rabat area is dotted with an unusually large numbers of urban rock-cut churches, among which we find Sta Maria della Grotta, which in the middle of the 15th century was attached to the Dominican priory; St Paul’s Grotto, synonymous with Pauline traditions, located underneath the parish church, as well as other clusters of subterranean shrines nearby, including that of St Catald, Sta Maddalena, Sta Venera at Għar Barca and the ancient burial sites of St Agatha and St Paul’s catacombs.
Sprawled all over Rabat’s gentle hills and meadows we find Sta Maria della Virtù, an impressive ornate underground chapel overlooking the fertile Wied l-Isqof.
On the Dingli incline in the serenity of Wied ir-Rum, with its Byzantine connection, there existed a troglodyte chapel dedicated to St Nicholas; and along the remote Binġemma cliffs honeycombed with rock tombs one encounters the remains of a troglodytic chapel.
As one looks back over the centuries, one is tempted to conclude that a few of these underground chapels may have witnessed the early vestiges of monasticism in our islands.
I am particularly fascinated by the subterranean chapel of San Leonardo overlooking the idyllic valley of Wied Liemu, arguably an ancient hermitage.
The dedication of this small cave to St Leonard, patron saint of slaves, pre-dates 1418, as the area known as San Leonardo is mentioned in old documents and notarial deeds and prominently included in a 16th century map.
According to secure records, the Carmelite order moved to the “La Nunciata” church situated above this chapel in 1441, availing themselves of an offer by the Noble Margarita d’Aragona in her will of 1418.
Historians believe the monks accepted this offer to give credence to an established tradition that in the 13th century a community of Carmelite hermits had lived in the area with the grotto of San Leonardo as their focus of devotion.
This underground chapel, a tangible record of our incipient re-Christianisation, has recently been rescued in the nick of time from the ravages of time and insensitivity through the initiative of Fr Amadeo Zammit, O. Carm.
Could this humble grotto be part of the monastic trail prevalent in Europe at that time?
My fascination with the spread of monasticism in the high Middle Ages was rekindled after I read Umberto Eco’s seminal novel The Name of the Rose (1980).
Eco, whose recent work Il Cimitero di Praga is a bestseller in Italy, maintains that the roots of today’s European culture and society are embedded in the Middle Ages, and that the discovery of this period points to a continent grappling in search of its roots and its nourishment.
The detailed reports of the Apostolic visits of Mgr Pietro Dusina in 1575 provide us with secure and reliable descriptions of all the churches existing then, including the wayside chapels.
Furthermore, the academic study of medieval Malta in 1647 by Gian Francesco Abela, reputedly the father of Maltese historiography, also sheds additional light on these chapels.
However, it was Achille Ferris who in 1866 published a detailed and informed seminal study, Descrizione storica delle chiese di Malta e Gozo, based mainly on his personal observations, erudition and records of pastoral visits by bishops over the years.
A noteworthy successor of Ferris in our times was the writer Michael Spiteri, known as Kilin, who in his inimitable style and effective sketches rekindled our appreciation of this notable heritage embellishing our rural landscape.
A recent illustrated publication, the first of five volumes, engaging highly sophisticated photography, in the 360 degrees series, which includes scholarly texts by Dr Joseph Grima, the long-standing secretary of the Malta Historical Society, offers a new dimension and a deep insight into this often neglected part of our heritage.
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