Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Proceedings of History Week 1984. [Malta : The [Malta] Historical Society, 1986(21-31)]

[p.21] The Qormi Pala d’Altare and Artistic Patronage

in Malta during the 15th and early 16th Centuries

Mario Buhagiar

            The period between approximately the early 15th century and the first three decades of the 16th is normally regarded as a time of grave economic depression and social insecurity. [1] Such an impression seems to be borne out by the surviving documents which complain repeatedly of the rapacity of corrupt crown officials, the exploitation of feudal lords and powerful local notables, over taxation, pillaging raids by the terrible Hafsids of Tunisia and piratical incursions by Genoese and Calabrian ships as well as of natural calamities such as plague and drought. [2] Perhaps the most eloquent of the capitoli or petitions that the Maltese sent to the King or his Viceroy in Sicily was that of 1466 in which they gave a probably, purposely exaggerated picture of dejection: quista insola, they bemoaned, è quasi unu parvulu scoglectu situatu in mezu mari, remotu undique da omni succursu et rifrigeriu. [3]

            Nonetheless, inspite of the apparently serious distress, the period also witnessed an unexpected boom in church buildings and a remarkable flowering of artistic patronage. [4] The Cathedral at Mdina was enlarged into a cruciform shape in 1419 and in 1520 it was given a new painted and gilt timbered ceiling when a clerestory was built on the nave arcades; [5] the mendicant friars who established themselves at [p.22] Rabat built and enlarged churches and convents; [6] and several of the twelve cappelle, or parish churches, mentioned in the 1436 report [7] were structurally modified as happened, for example, at Żurrieq, Qormi, Siġġiewi, Żejtun and Bir Miftuħ. [8] More remarkable still was the great quantity of small churches, many of them apparently votive buildings, that were built or rebuilt both in the casali and in remote country districts; by 1530 these seem to have numbered about four hundred! [9]

            The few snippets of information so far unearthed about artistic patronage are even more revealing in that they often point to an unexpected sophistication in the choice of artists and workshops that necessitated contacts not only with nearby Sicily but also with the Italian mainland and, possibly, even further afield. Some of the more relevant documents have been published and discussed by Dr. Godfrey Wettinger [10] but there is still much scope for further research both by the late medieval specialist historian and by the art critic.

            Mdina Cathedral had, as might be expected, the most impressive works. They included the great pala or retable of St. Paul which seems to be the work of a painter in the immediate entourage of Luis Borassa (1360-1426) who was the leading Catalan painter of the International Gothic period; [11] an oblong panel with scenes of the Dormition of the Virgin and St. Michael which is strongly Valencian in style; [12] intarsia choir stalls commissioned in 1482 from Parisio and Pierantonio Calacura, [p.23] carpinteri of Catania; [13] a white marble baptismal font from the Palermo workshop of Domenico Gagini executed sometime between 1495 and 1501; [14] a triptych of the Madonna del Soccorso, attributed to Salvo d’Antonio and possibly painted in the last decade of the 15th century; [15] and ceiling paintings by Alessandro Patavinus, or Padovano of Siracusa who may also be the author of the large panel of the Madonna of Loreto in the Ta’ Loreto Church at Gudja and, possibly, also of some of the murals in the cave-church of St. Agatha. [16] A bell with a relief figure of St. Paul and three shields each showing a lion rampant was made in Venice, for the Cathedral in 1370 [17] and, in 1442, the dean of the Cathedral, Don Bernardus Janer, bound his heirs with precise instructions to order from Venice an embroidered banderiam which probably means, in this context, a hanging screen or tapestry or, perhaps, a banner, which was to depict St. Paul with Don Bernardo at his feet. [18]

            Other important works were commissioned by the Monastic Orders and by local notables such as Joannes de Nava who, in his will of 1st November 1487 made provisions for a sepoltura di marmora or marble sepulchral monument that was to be embellished with a gilt trophy of arms and a silk banner emblazoned with his arms. Unfortunately there are no particulars about the workshop entrusted with its execution and it is not even known whether the work was actually carried out. [19] De Nava’s heirs were certainly not over zealous about fulfilling his other stipulated wish to provide a marble effigy of the Virgin of Loreto for a chapel he had founded in the Dominican Church of the Virgin of the Grotto. [20]

            Not far from the Dominican Church, the Augustinians decorated their own church at Rabat with a very fine polyptych which may have come from the artistic milieu of Sicily but is technically and iconographically related with the more Northern International Gothic Style. [21]

            [p.24] Close ties were meanwhile maintained with the Gagini Messina workshop and with the Messina School of painters that revolved round the great Antonello da Messina. In 1504 the Franciscan Minor Observants signed a contract with Antonello Gagini for a marble statue of the Madonna and Child which survives in their Rabat Church and carries on the pedestal the partially legible signature of Antonello and the date 1504. [22] This statue which is mentioned in a will of 1535 published by Wettinger [23] served as a model for another Madonna that Antonello Gagini produced shortly afterwards for the church of Santa Maria della Grazia at Catanzaro. [24] Another work stylistically related to the Messina workshop of the Gagini is the white marble statue of St. Agatha in the Church of the saint at Rabat. [25] A much later work of the same workshop is the beautiful tomb of Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam produced round 1534-35 and now erected in the Grand Master’s Crypt of the Conventual Church of St. John’s at Valletta.

            The Maltese activity of the Sicilian followers of Antonello da Messina is quite well known. Antonello had a close family link with Malta because one of his two sisters married, about 1461, a probable native of Malta, Giovanni De Saliba or Resaliba who was active as an intagliatore at Messina between 1469 and 1510. [26] Giovanni’s two painter sons Pietro and Antonio de Saliba both worked for Maltese patrons as did their cousin Salvo (known in art as Salvo d’Antonio) who was the son of Antonello’s brother Giordano. [27] Their Maltese works have been discussed elsewhere both by myself and other historians and art critics [28] and I wish, here, to comment only on a large pala d’altare that Antonio de Saliba produced in 1517 for the Church of Minor Observants at Rabat. This polyptych had two main panels (which still survive) representing, respectively the Lamentation for Christ and the Madonna and Child Enthroned. The other panels depicted St. Paul, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, Bishop St. Ludwig, St. Agatha, St. Catherine of Alexandria and [p.25] St. Lucy; while on the predella (which was inscribed and dated) the Salvator Mundi was surrounded by the Apostles. [29]

            Another important pala daltare of unknown authorship and provenance somehow found its way to the parish church of the village of Qormi which had been either rebuilt or structurally altered in 1456 during the time of parish priest Don Giglio Lombardo. [30] The pala which has long been dismembered was made up of at least four panels: a large central Lamentation for Christ, a St. George, a St. Gregory and a Crucifixus. Stylistic considerations suggest that it also had a predella but of this there is no documentary evidence and (if it ever existed) it must have been lost a long time ago.

            The history of this pala is a complicated one. It may, possibly, be identified with the icona mentioned in the Dusina Report of 1575 when it was exhibited for veneration above the tabernacle on the chancel altar. [31] A few years later in 1588 it was referred to as an icona cum Imagine Jesu Christi et Virginis Mariae. [32] Subsequent visitation reports describe it in greater detail and it seems to have remained the main


a) Qormi, Parish Church of St. George, THE LAMENTATION FOR CHRIST, tempera on wood. Detail.
b) Qormi, Parish Church of St. George, CRUCIFIXUS, tempera on wood. (Photos: John Frendo)


a) Qormi, Museum of the Parish Church of St. George, ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, tempera on wood.
b) Qormi, Museum of the Parish Church of St. George, POPE ST. GREGORY ACCOMPANIED BY A FEMALE SAINT, tempera on wood. (Photos: John Frendo)

[p.28] altarpiece of the church until 1632 when it was replaced by the large canvas of St. George Fighting the Dragon, the work of the Italian painter Gaspare Formica. [33] The pala was then (apparently) partially dismembered and hung in the vestry where it remained until about 1651 when the panel of the Lamentation for Christ and those of St. Gregory and St. George were reassembled to form a triptych which became the altarpiece of an altar that had recently been set up in the north transept, in honour of the Virgin of Sorrows. [34] In 1850 the reredos of this altar was refashioned and the old pala was substituted by a new canvas of the Pietà commissioned from the painter Antonio Falzon (1805-65). [35] This move must, however, have provoked considerable public displeasure because after only a few years, the new painting was removed and, on the instructions of Bishop Gaetano Pace Forno, the central Lamentation for Christ of the late medieval pala (now shorn of the side panels) was reinstated as the altarpiece of the Pietà altar where it is still an object of considerable veneration. [36]

            Stylistically the Qormi Pala is a rather bewildering mixture of Italo-Byzantinesque and late Gothic elements which was, possibly, commissioned from a North-Italian workshop active in the second half of the 15th century. It is a work of considerable sophistication and iconographical interest and it is, to say the least, odd how it found its way into the church of a remote village such as Qormi must have been in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Works of comparable artistic merit were only produced for the more affluent town churches and it is probable that the Qormi Pala was commissioned, in the first place, by one of the rich convent churches of Rabat and that it only found its way to Qormi at a subsequent date.

            On the central panel, the Virgin, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and John the Evangelist, receives into her lap the dead body of Christ, as she sits at the foot of the cross, while fretted against the background are the figures of Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and Veronica who hold passion symbols. The iconography of the sorrowful Virgin who presses her cheek against the cheek of her dead Son seems to have been copied straight from a Byzantine repertory and it finds echoes in several important Byzantine works executed between the 12th and 16th centuries such as the well known mural of Lamentation for Christ in the church of St. Panteleimon at Nerez in Macedonia. [37] The treatment of the background (which looks like a tapestry hanging) and of the secondary figures is, on the other hand, in a purely International Gothic idiom and it is painted with a characteristic passion for extreme refinement, courtly elegance and love for exquisite patterns, intense colours and use of gold leaf. It is indeed a pity that such a beautiful work has suffered so extensively from inept restoration.

            [p.29] The panels of St. Gregory and St. George, now in the collection of the Qormi Church Museum, are in a completely International Gothic idiom. On the St. George panel the saint on a white steed fights the dragon while the beautiful princess prays on her knees for the valiant knight who has come to her rescue. Rather than a religious picture this is an enchanted Arthurian adventure in which valour and goodness triumph over the evil allegorised in the quaintly picturesque dragon; and the fairy tale atmosphere is further enhanced by the distant castle perched on an impossibly steep hill. There is neither feeling for depth nor interest in a natural rendering of space but one cannot help remarking on the adequate draughtsmanship and the well rendered armour of St. George.

            The other panel is dominated by the monumentally rendered figure of Pope St. Gregory which fills almost all the picture space with the exception of the right hand corner where a charmingly ariscvtocratic female saint (perhaps St. Venera) intrudes gracefully into the scene to join St. Gregory in devout prayer. The pontifical vestments of the Pope are minutely detailed and a credit to the keen sense of observation of the unkown artist.

            The Crucifixus which now hangs above the choir altar beneath Mattia Preti’s painting of the Martydrom of St. George is Byzantinesque in inspiration but Italianate in execution and the sinuous figure of Christ points to a Gothic influence. Also of Gothic inspiration is the blood stained skull on the pedestal supporting the cross which bears the four evangelical symbols. Similar crucifixes were common in the late Middle Ages and in the Early Renaissance Period and examples can be seen in the collections of the principal European Museums as well as in old established churches in Italy and elsewhere.

            The Crucifix was probably the crowning panel of the Qormi Pala which deserves much better recognition as one of the masterpieces of late medieval art surviving in Malta.


            In 1919-1920 the panel of The Deposition was restored by the painter Lazzaro Pisani (1850-1932). The work was criticised by Vincenzo Bonello (1891-1969) in a long article in the newspaper Malta (19th May 1920) in which he severely rebukes the Qormi church authorities for the irreparable damage they were perpetuating in the parish church of St. George and in the church of Santa Marija tal-Ħlas through misguided restoration works. [38] Bonello’s ire was provoked by the projected destruction of the richly carved altar reredoses in the parish church [39] but he also took the opportunity to comment on some of the historical relics and works of art in the two churches among them The Deposition and the panels of St. George and [p.30] Pope St. Gregory. Presumably unaware of the pastoral Visitation reports, and basing his conclusion on purely stylistic considerations, he apparently did not suspect that the three panels formed part of the same pala and he wrongly assigned The Deposition to the 14th century. He also mistook the St. Gregory for a St. Elmo. [40] What annoyed him most in the restoration of The Deposition was the, reputedly, unrestrained use of glittering gold leaf in the haloes of the sacred figures that people the scene:

Colpisce, pure nella chiesa, il luccichio dei diademi ridorati di fresco, di buon oro, su di un>'annerita tavola trecentesca, recentemente rinnovata. In una sacrestia interna giacciono due tavole del Sec. XV di grande interesse storico ed artistico; uno rappresenta in armatura il santo guerriero protettore del villaggio; l’altra ricorda il lontano quattrocento quando la giurisdizione di questo casale arrivava all’estrema punta della lingua di terra ove oggi sorge la Valletta, perchè rappresenta il santo protettore dei naviganti al quale era dedicata una chiesuola in punto al promontorio oggi occupato dal castello omonimo. [41] Sono anneriti e hanno i diademi di oro pallido, fra non molto però splenderanno rinnovati e ridorati perbene. [42]

Lazzaro Pisani took exception to this criticism and by way of justification for his intervention he published the following highly interesting restoration report in the Malta (27th May 1920): [43]

Questa antichissima tavola a tempera, naturalmente in principio formava un bellissimo trittico, da certi buchi che esistono ai suoi lati [44] ; ora Mons. Arc. Fra Gaetano Pace Forno in una sua visita pastorale trovando sull’altare dell’Addolorata collocato in sua vece un nuovo quadro ad olio, rappresentante il medesimo soggetto, commandò la sua rimozione e la ripristinazione di detta venerabile tavola; questa giaceva da tempo nella sagrestia della arciconfraternità>, luogo umido a tramontana, e poi dandole per crassa ignoranza una mano di olio di noce per farla ricomparire brillante venne riposta sul suo altare; posto eccessivamente secco, per causa dei ceri dell’altar maggiore al quale è attiguo ed ai raggi del sole, sulla quale in certi momenti inesorabilmente vi battono, nonostante la difesa di un cristallo postole davanti. Ora le dette circostanze unite al tempo avevano determinato quasi la sua totale rovina: infatti il petto del Cristo Morto in parte era distrutto in altra la pittura totalmente staccata ed accorticciata a guisa di foglie di spina cadenti; la testa della Vergine Addolorata [p.31] con l’aureola staccata in forma del cavo di una mano, il resto per più di due terzi, oltre diversi guasti, rigonfio da fare parere la pittura maggiore della tavola su cui era dipinta: condizione credo da fare impensierire qualunque abile restauratore. Chiamato per restaurare tanta rovina non volevo accettare l’incarico; poi immaginando “senza garantire la riuscita,” di staccare la pittura dalla tavola su tela, cedetti alle istanze del M.R. Cappellano e del Sac. Procuratore. Ma questa operazione incominciata tanto bene la dovetti fermare per causa di ribaditure di grossi chiodi e di sprofondi tarlate.

   Tentai un’ultima e mi è riuscita a meraviglia cioè di fare infinite incisioni nelle parti rigonfie per diminuire il volume ritenendo la pittura antica su pezzettini di carta velina e poi aderirla alla tovala con pasta elastica nuovamente; consolidai bene le tavola al di dietro colmando le tarlature riducendole di un sol pezzo dando in ultimo alle stesse uno intonaco per impedire l’azione della diversità di temperatura. Di più trovai nella pulitura che il Cristo e la prospettiva erano contorniate da una mano vandalica con grossi contorni neri e diverse imbratture di rosso da sembrare sangue, i quali in parte mi è riuscito levare ed inaltra di ritoccare.

   In quanto all’oro in mistura delle aureole che era molto danneggiato feci chiamare il Mro. Signor Coleiro per sentire il suo parere e conbinammo insieme di rinnovare il solo oro delle aureole – lasciando tutte le altre misture dei fondi e delle figure – come erano. E questo lo dico al publico per la pura verità. All’Illmo. V. Bonello raccomando la pazienza di riconsiderare la descritta tavola o lavoro, lui che ha l’occhio vigile e penetrante, e correggere la parola rinnovata invece di ristaurate, che gli è caduta dalla sua incantevole penna nel suo pregiatissimo articolo comparso nel Malta il 19 corrente: la quale semplice parola a mio sentire è ingiuriosa alla venerazzione artistica di detta tavola ed a me di onesto restauratore.

[1]   The best accounts of this period are the several writings of Anthony T. Luttrell particularly “Approaches to Medieval Malta” in Medieval Malta – Studies on Malta Before the Knights, London 1975, pp. 48-70 and the various contributions of Godfrey Wettinger to Melita Historica, Proceedings of History Week and other specialised publications which are of seminal importance and contain the essential documentary references and bibliography. H. Bresc’s “The ‘Secrezia’ and the Royal Patrimony in Malta 1240-1450” (Medieval Malta pp. 126-162) is also of vital interest and provides the necessary economic background.

[2] References and details in Luttrell, Approaches, Bresc, op. cit. and Roberto Valentini who published several of the relevant documents in Archivio Storico di Malta (V-XIII Rome 1934-1942). The Monroy incident of 1426-27 which is often mentioned as the turning point in the islanders’ struggles and sacrifices to achieve a measure of political liberty is re-dimensionised in Godfrey Wettinger “The Pawning of Malta to Monroy,” Melita Historica, VII no. 3 (1978), pp. 263-283.

[3]   Text in Valentini, in Archivio Storico di Malta, X, p. 70.

[4]   See especially Godfrey Wettinger “Artistic Patronage in Malta: 1418-1538” in Ħal Millieri: A Maltese Casale, Its Churches and Paintings (ed. A. Luttrell), Malta 1976, pp. 108-115.

[5]   On Mdina Cathedral see Mario Buhagiar, “Medieval Churches in Malta,” Medieval Malta, op. cit., pp. 178-179.

[6]   On the Religious Orders in Malta see Anthony Luttrell, “The Benedictines and Malta: 1363- 1371,” Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. L (1982), pp. 146-165; “The Augustinians at Malta: 1413,” Analecta Augustiniana XXXVIII (1975); Approaches, op. cit., pp. 63-66, and Bonaventura Fiorini, “Il Convento di S. Francesco in Rabat (Malta) dei Frati Minori Conventuali,” Melita Historica vol. 3 no. 3, 1962; Serafin Abela, L-Ewwel Karmelitani f’Malta u l-Knisja u Kunvent Tagħhom: Il-Lunzjata l-Qadima, Malta 1976; Mikiel Fsadni, Il-Miġja u l-Ħidma ta’ l-Ewwel Dumnikani f’Malta, Malta 1965 and idem, Id-Dumnikani fir-Rabat u fil-Birgu sa l-1620, Malta 1974.

[7]   On the Cappelle and the 1436 Report see A. Luttrell, “Le origini della parrocchia a Malta” in Italia Sacra: Studi e documenti di storia ecclesiastica, vol. 36: Pievi e Parrocchie in Italia nel Basso Medioevo (Sec. XIII-XV: Atti del VI Convegno di storia della chiesa in Italia (Firenze, 21-25 Sept. 1981), Rome 1984, pp. 1187-1198.

[8]   On the parish churches in general see Mario Buhagiar, op. cit., pp. 172-175. On particular parish churches see – for Zurrieq: Mario Buhagiar, St. Catherine of Alexandria. Her Churches, Paintings and Statues in the Maltese Islands, Malta 1979, pp. 113-118 and Anthony Mangion, “The Parish Church of St. Catherine – Zurrieq,” Heritage vol. 1, pp. 221-224; For Zejtun: Mario Buhagiar, St. Catherine of Alexandria, pp. 75-90 and idem “The Old Parish Church of Zejtun,” Heritage vol. 3, pp. 761-768; on Siġġiewi, Carmel Vella, St. Nicholas of Bari Old Parish Church Siġġiewi, unpublished thesis, Faculty of Architecture, University of Malta; on Qormi: the contributions of Godfrey Wettinger and Mario Buhagiar in Joseph F. Grima (Ed.) Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta’ San Ġorġ Ħal Qormi – Erba’ Sekli ta’ Storja, Malta 1984, pp. 3-6, 86-87; on Gozo Castello: Godfrey Wettinger, Il-Ġrajja tal-Knisja Matriċi ta’ Għawdex (Edizzjoni ġdida b’xi żidiet), Malta 1975.

[9]   Mario Buhagiar, Medieval Churches, op. cit.

[10] Godfrey Wettinger, “Artistic Patronage” op. cit., and idem “Burials in Maltese Churches: 1419-1530s” in Hyphen: A Journal of Melitensia and the Humanities. Vol. IV No. 2 (1984), pp. 39-45. See also the very valuable contribution of Genevieve Bautier-Bresc, “The Paintings at Ħal Millieri,” in Ħal Millieri, op. cit., pp. 97-104.

[11] Genevieve Bautier-Bresc. op. cit., pp. 102-103; Mario Buhagiar, St. Catherine, op. cit., pp. 189-190 and “Late Medieval Marian Art in Malta” in Mario Buhagiar (ed.) Marian Art During the 17th and 18th Centuries, Malta 1983, pp. 3, 9 n.23.

[12] Mario Buhagiar, “Late Medieval Marian Art, op. cit., p. 3.

[13] Mikiel Fsadni, Il-Miġja u l-Ħidma ta’ l-Ewwel Dumnikani, op. cit., p. 68 and Mario Buhagiar, “Late Medieval Marian Art,” p. 3.

[14] Hanno W. Kruft, Domenico Gagini and Werkstatt, Munich 1972, pp. 55, 244, pls. 221-233. The font is said to have been commissioned by Bishop Valguarnera.

[15] Anthony T. Luttrell, “The Madonna del Soccorso,” Heritage vol. III, pp. 927-932.

[16] Mario Buhagiar, “Medieval Churches,” pp. 178-179, 179 n. 93; “Late Medieval Marian Art” pp. 7-8.

[17] The bell is still extant. It is mentioned in a text of 1645 reproduced by Alfredo Mifsud in La Diocesi ii (1917-1918), pp. 76-77.

[18] Godfrey Wettinger, “Artistic Patronage,” pp. 109, 117n. 31.

[19] Ibid. pp. 110, 117n. 33 and idem “Burials in Maltese Churches,” op. cit., p. 40.

[20] Godfrey Wettinger, “Artistic Patronage,” p. 110 and Mikiel Fsadni, Il-Miġja u l-Ħidma ta’ l-Ewwel Dumnikani, op. cit., pp. 55-59.

[21] Genevieve Bautier-Bresc. op. cit., p. 103 and Mario Buhagiar, St. Catherine, pp. 190-191; “Late Medieval Marian Art,” p. 4.

[22] The signature appears on the plinth which has a main relief of St. Francis receiving the stigmata and half figures of St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi. The plinth now forms part of the collection of the National Musuem of Fine Arts. The statue was commissioned from the artist on 23rd February 1504 (Gioacchino di Marzo, I Gagini e la scultura in Sicilia nei secoli XV e XVI, Palermo 1880-1883, vol. 2, p. 60 doc. XLVI.) See also Vincenzo Bonello in V. Bonello / J.A. Cauchi, Pauline Centenary Exhibition – Sacred Art in Malta, Malta 1960, p. 104 and Hanno Walter Kruft, “Figure Giovanili di Madonne di Antonello Gagini” in Antichità Viva Fascicolo No. 2, Firenze (Editrice Edam) 1975.

[23] Godfrey Wettinger, “Artistic Patronage,” pp. 110, 118n. 35.

[24] Hanno Walter Kruft, “Figure Giovanili.” The Catanzaro Madonna was commissioned on 7th October 1504.

[25] On the history of this statue see Victor Camilleri, Sant’Agata: Katakombi, Kripta, Knisja, Malta 1978, pp. 69-72 and idem, St. Agatha: An Archaeological Study of the Ancient Monuments and St. Agatha’s Building Complex: Crypt, Catacombs, Church and Museum, Malta 1984 pp. 111-115.

[26] On Antonello da Messina’s Maltese relations and connections see Godfrey Wettinger “Artistic Patronage,” p. 111; Anthony Luttrell, “Approaches,” pp. 65-66 and “The Madonna del Soccorso”; Mario Buhagiar, St. Catherine, pp. 98-99 and “Late Medieval Marian Art,” pp. 6-7; Genevieve Bautier-Bresc, op. cit., p. 103.

[27] For a geneaological table of the Antonello family see “L’opera completa di Antonello da Messina” ed. by Leonardo Sciascia for the Classici dell’Arte, Rizzoli Editore, Milan 1967, p. 84.

[28] See note 26, supra.

[29] The pala was described in 1730 by friar-chronicler, Giovanni Antonio Mercieca who gives the following account, quoted by Fr. George Aquilina, “Marian Devotions and the Franciscans Minor” in Vincent Borg (ed), Marian Devotions in the Islands of St. Paul (1600-1800), Malta 1983, p. 340 n. 58: Icon veneratur antiquissima, et gothico more in tres ordines divisa in quodam primo et superiori representat in medio corporis Christi Domini extincti depositionem de Cruce in sinum afflictijs V. Matris, a latere dextero D. Paulum et post illum Divum Antonium Patavinum, a sinistro S.P.N. Franciscum, et post hunc S. Episcopum Ludovicum. In medio secundi ordinis B.mam Virginem in Cathedra sedentem cum divina Prole super ejus dexteram genu stante, et Angelus utrinque sacras adorantes Personas: a dexteris Deiparentis S. et Virgines stant Agatha et Catherina, a sinistris vero Lucia et Barbara: tertius et infimus ordo unius circiter palmi altitudinis adest, in quo Salvator Mundi in medio existens, et equali numero Apostolorum suorum ad dexteram, sinistramve associatus ostenditur ... opus Messanae elaboratum anno 1517.” Fr. George Aquilina (p. 340) wrongly attributes the pala to Antonello. Fr. George Aquilina has also traced and published (Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira tal-Belt, Malta 1986, p. 83n) an apparently contemporary copy of the deed registering a part payment to Antonello de Saliba, in the Malta provincial archives, Ms. 1, p. 3: Messane: XX Novembris, 7 Indict. 1517. Nobilis Antonellus Resaliba Civis messanensis sponte confessus est recepisse et habuisse ab honorabili Johanne Zamit Maltense, uti procuratore Ecclesiae seu conventus Sanctae Mariae de Jehsu eiusdem Civitatis Melivetae unciam unam et tarenos sedecim: sunt ad complimentum unciarum quinquagiata ad quos dictus Conventus eidem nobili Antonello tenebatur, pro fattura et constructione cuisdam Conae pro ditto Conventu. Itaque ut dicat apparere de praemissis in artis publicis propria sponte nobilis Antonellus a dicco conventu, me notario stipulante, pro quo tenens se contentum et satisfactum de supra ditto debito. Cum ... voluit et vult per omnes contractus et scripturae intereundi notario in predictum Conventum fatti e factae sunt cassi et nulli ac nullae, solummodo de praesenti contractu in suo robore pro existenti. Ipse Johannes procuratorio nomine quo supra, similiter confessus est ab eodem nobili Antonello recepisse et habuisse dictam conam jam sunt anni duo. Et propterea se ad invicem contractaverunt et quod omnia etc. sub poena etc. obligando, habendo etc. et jure fiat in forma communi.

Praesentibus nobili Sigismundo Capri, Magro Nicolao, Antonio Mithella, Bernardo Dabello. Ex artis meis Francisci Antonii Demarino regii publici Messanensis, manu propria.

[30] On Dun Giglio Lombardo and the rebuilding of Qormi parish church see Mario Buhagiar, “Xogħlijiet ta’ Arti w Artiġjanat fil-Knisja ta’ San Gorg,” op. cit., pp. 86-87.

[31] National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta, Visitatio Dusina 1575, f. 100.

[32] Archiepiscopal Archives, Floriana, Visitatio Gargallo 1588-1602, f. 40. The pala is also mentioned in several other visitation reports, at the Archiepiscopal Archives, among them: Visitatio Gargallo 1601, f. 189; Visitatio Balaguer 1636, f. 54v and 1653, f. 178; Visitatio Astiria 1671-74, f. 246v; Visitatio Molina 1678-80, f. 356; Visitatio Rull 1758-59 (II), f. 549v; Visitatio Pellerano 1771-74/77, f. 403v.

[33] Details in Mario Buhagiar, “Xogħlijiet ta’ Arti,” pp. 61-66.

[34] Vincent Borg in Marian Devotions, op. cit., pp. 105, 113-114, and in Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta’ San Ġorġ, op. cit., p. 17.

[35] Details in Buhagiar, “Xogħlijiet ta’ Arti,” pp. 63-64.

[36] See Appendix.

[37] This famous work is illustrated in David Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art (Penguin Books) 1968, pp. 256, 266. For other parallels see ibid., pp. 273, 276, 310, 499.

[38] Miss Maria Pisani kindly drew my attention to this article.

[39] This unfortunate work, which robbed Malta of some of its finest 17th century stone-carvings was actually carried out between 20th June 1921 and 2nd April 1923 under the direction of master mason Ġorġ Pulis, known as Ta’ Kalanġ, a native of Qormi. The story is told in Carmelo Psaila, Il-Knisja Arċimatriċi ta’ Ħal Qormi bil-Ġrajja Tagħha, Malta 1937, p. 71. For details of the reredoses see Vincent Borg “Il-Knisja Parrokkjali Ta’ San Ġorġ f’Ħal Qormi Tinbena u Tithejia għall-Jum il-Konsagrazzjoni Tagħha,” in Il-Knisja Parrokkjali taSan Ġorġ Ħal Qormi, op. cit., pp. 16-21. The choir, reputedly a masterpiece of Baroque extravaganza, had already been shorn of all decoration and drastically remodelled in 1899 (Carmelo Psaila, op. cit., pp. 44-45).

[40] The identification of this saint with St. Gregory is based on iconographical considerations but the visitation reports give conflicting names: Visitatio Gargallo 1601, f. 189 and Visitatio Astiria 1671-74, f. 246v: St. Gregory; Visitatio Gargallo 1588, f. 40: St. Elmo; Visitatio Molina 1679: St. Nicholas.

[41] Bonello means Fort St. Elmo. The belief that the fort stands on the site of a church dedicated to St. Elmo does not seem to be supported by documentary evidence.

[42] Bonello’s fears were unfounded because the two panels were happily not tampered with.

[43] Miss Maria Pisani kindly drew my attention to this report.

[44] Pisani was apparently unaware of the panel of the crucifixus which at the time was still in the store room of the Confraternity of the Virgin of Consolation (Mario Buhagiar, Xogħlijiet tal-Arti, op. cit., p. 65), he, therefore, assumed the pala to have been a triptych and not a polyptych as it almost certainly was.