The Last Supper table at the Oratory of St Dominic’s Priory in Valletta is an exciting display that comes to life every year during Easter. Simonne Pace meets Ivan Grixti, who is entrusted with the day-to-day running of the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament within the Priory.
Holy Week is a bustling affair at St Dominic’s Priory in Valletta, with the main attraction being the Last Supper table, which was first set up by the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament in 1784.
People still feel something and still like tradition
At the time, there were no social services in Malta and the main objective of the activity was to take care of the needs of the poorest of the poor. Every year, after Good Friday, the food was gladly shared by poor families.
The parish priest selected 12 people to represent the 12 apostles during the Last Supper, who would first have their feet washed during the ceremony on Maundy Thursday and then receive the food individually and take it home with them.
“Although there has been an increase in secularism within Maltese society, there has also been greater participation in Holy Week activities,” says Ivan Grixti, one of the three commissioners entrusted with the day-to-day running of the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament within St Dominic’s Priory.
“This shows that people still feel something and still like tradition. Unlike the commerciality of Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are days dedicated to silence and reflection during which one contributes to the true spirit of Holy Week,” explains Ivan, 46, who has been involved in St Dominic’s parish since he was a little boy.
An accountant by profession and a full-time lecturer in accountancy at the University of Malta, Ivan was baptised in Sliema. His mum, who was originally from Valletta but has been living in Sliema for the past 54 years, had to take care of her mother, who was ill with Parkinson’s disease. So, twice a week, the young Ivan and his brother slept at their grandmother’s house in Valletta with their mother.
“That was the trigger,” says Ivan. “Most probably, if there wasn’t that situation, my brother and I would have ended up playing water polo with Sliema or Neptunes, like my dad did.”
Spending practically all his childhood in Valletta, Ivan recalled how, as a young lad, he dashed off to help his cousins decorate the church.
This is how he became so attached to the Dominican church and all the activities surrounding it, particularly the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, which is entrusted with organising the Last Supper table, the feast of Corpus Christi and the Viaticum on a much smaller scale.
In the past, the Viaticum was a tradition whereby bells were rung soon after it was announced that a member of the parish was on the verge of passing away, after which the members of the Archconfraternity would gather at the sacristy, wear their habits and deliver the Holy Sacraments to the person who was about to die.
On the Last Supper table, each apostle has 13 plates, some displaying rice, others different shapes of pasta, while most feature milestones from the Archconfraternity’s history, such as the coat of arms of Inquisitor Mgr Pietro Duzzina, who in 1575 established the Archconfraternity.
Among the plates of rice depicting the various apostles is that of Judas Iscariot. This plate is made out of 30 individual areas of rice, coated in a silver colour, depicting the 30 pieces of silver the Apostle received for betraying Jesus.
The main seat at the centre of the table depicts Christ’s place during the Last Supper. Christ’s plate, which takes pride of place, features the Holy Eucharist.
Six other members of the Archconfraternity dedicate their evenings right through the Holy Week of Lent to set up the Last Supper table.
About 80 kilos of rice are used to make up all the plates on display, and coloured pasta will be used for the first time this year. A variety of nuts and fresh fruit, mostly oranges, can also be found, together with a crate of wine, a couple of 1.6-kilo Maltese loaves and a few apostles’ bread rings.
The Last Supper table will be inaugurated on Tuesday and is open until Good Friday at the Oratory of St Dominic’s Priory in St Dominic’s Street, Valletta. This year, the food will be donated to the Ursuline Sisters of the Creche in Sliema.
The current commissioners – Ivan Grixti, Paul Cremona and Martin Zammit – have taken on the ambitious project of restoring the Oratory to its former splendour. All necessary works on the exterior of the Oratory have been completed to seal off any future rainwater seeping in, while tests are being carried out by restoration and conservation cooperative Recoop on the interior and a detailed report on what needs to be done is being drawn up. Any donations in aid of this restoration will be appreciated.
Worth a visit
One of the treasures to be found in the Oratory of the Blessed Sacrament within St Dominic’s Priory is the sedan chair, which used to belong to Grand Master Ramon Perellos, who was a benefactor of the Archconfraternity.
The story goes that in Perellos’s time, the parish priest was once on his way back to the church during a Viaticum, when he got caught up in a bad storm in front of the Palace. Perellos immediately ordered his servants to welcome the parish priest and the Holy Sacrament.
After the storm, Perellos sent the parish priest on his sedan chair back to the church. The Grand Master is said to have pronounced the words: “Now that the Holy Sacrament has entered my sedan chair, I no longer qualify to sit in it.” Perellos’s sedan chair remains at the Oratory till this day.
The Oratory is considered to be one of three treasures of baroque architecture in Malta, the other two being the Jesuit Oratory in Valletta and the Oratory of the Blessed Crucifix in Senglea.
The Oratory of the Blessed Sacrament is endowed with paintings by famous artists. The titular painting is by Mattia Preti, whose fourth birth centenary is being celebrated this year. This painting is considered to be a masterpiece by art critics worldwide, the reason being that it is one of the few where Preti depicted a self-portrait, visualising Christ distributing the Holy Communion to Peter, with the Holy Host as we know it today.