[p.1] “IN TE SPERAVEUNT PATRES NOSTRI …”

The earliest reproduction of Our Lady painted in Malta at the Troglodytic Sanctuary of Mellieħa after its recent restoration.

Photo: Joseph A. Vella,
F.R.F.S., A.F.I.A.B.

[p.2] Vincent Borg

MARIAN DEVOTIONS IN MALTESE DIOCESAN CHURCHES

INTRODUCTION

The Maltese Islands, consisting primarily of Malta and Gozo which, from prehistoric times till our own days, formed the inhabited parts of the Maltese Archipelago, owe their early insertion in the Christian World to St Paul. This explains why they have been called in the title of this publication, the Islands of St Paul. The Apostle's providential shipwreck during, the last months of 60 A.D. and his stay in Malta throughout the following winter, brought the Good Tidings to our forefathers, who were indeed stunned and marvelled by his wondrous miracles.[1]

The Paleochristian monumental heritage of these islands, apart from attesting the vitality of the early Maltese Christian Community, places Malta among the more important archaeological centres in the study of the `Orbis Christianus Antiquus' The varied forms of architectural patterns within our underground christian hypogea, and catacombs and the special characteristics which hallmark particular customs and usages prevailing during the first centuries of Christian existence, give a certain uniqueness to the Maltese Paleochristian heritage.[2]

Malta's chequered history, particularly the Arab domination of the island (870-1090), may have destroyed many evidences which would have otherwise provided the link between the early Christian period and Medieval Malta. However, various indications point out a Christian continuity even throughout the above-mentioned two hundred and twenty years.

It is all too obvious that the Blessed Virgin Mary has always found an important place within the Maltese Christian traditions, even though monumental and documentary evidence in this regard, traced so far, do not seem to go beyond the early centuries of the second millennium of the Christian Era. The oldest painting of the Blessed Virgin, executed in Malta, namely the Mellieħa Madonna, after its recent restoration, is still awaiting an accurate scientific study to try to establish its chronology. The earliest written document, traced till our own days, belongs to the middle of the 13th century and refers to the Nativity church which stood in the `Castellum Maris'. Archaeological excavations and further scientific research may, eventually, provide more data which would, perhaps, help to establish and determine the presence and spreading of Marian worship before Medieval times in Malta.

[p.3] The work entailed in the preparation of this study has examined, primarily, the records of Pastoral Visits carried out in Malta from 1570 onwards, dealing exclusively with ecclesiastical entities under the local Bishop's jurisdiction. The data derived from these sources have been duly processed and the results achieved, classified according to the different forms of Marian worship therein sufficiently documented, formed the main outline of the work being presented in this publication. This outline is based on two fundamental aspects. There were forms of Marian devotions of considerable extensive importance in our National Christian Traditions, as well as others of lesser general impact. In this last instance, however, this does not mean that these Marian devotions had a merely negligible importance. This is far from the truth. Some of them, in our own days, are still highly venerated, e.g. the Cathedral 'St Luke' Madonna, the Damascena. Nevertheless, their veneration was, normally, restricted to one or few churches.

The first category of 'Marian devotions, on the contrary, presented, to a great extent, a numerically outstanding group of churches, chapels, altars and feasts venerating a particular Marian title. For methodological and systematic reasons, it was deemed highly convenient to group each form of Marian devotion, included in this category, in two distinct subdivisions. The first subdivision includes churches and chapels followed by a second one dedicated to altars and feasts. Moreover, a short synthetic introduction, giving an insight in the development of this devotion abroad and its propagation in Malta, precedes a somewhat detailed analysis of the above-mentioned ecclesiastical entities. These, on their part, have been classified, to a great extent, according to the parochial division of Malta as it stood till the end of the 18th century

It is to be noted, at this stage, that the more important Marian Sanctuaries of Malta have been included within this first category, since their titular feasts coincide with one of the Marian forms of worship gathered together in this subdivision. Thus the Mellieħa Sanctuary and Tal-Ħerba at Birkirkara are included among the Nativity churches, so also Żabbar's Sanctuary among churches dedicated to Our Lady of Graces, while with Assumption churches, one meets, among others, the Tal-Mirakli church at Lija, Qormi's Tal-Ħlas church and Tas-Samra at present day Hamrun.

In order to help an easy consultation of both sections, it was deemed essential to give a definite abbreviation to every Marian devotion. Those grouped in the first section are presented with an abbreviation derived from their own Marian title, while the rest have been assigned a letter from the Alphabet. The latter have been, normally, grouped according to a chronological sequence resulting from their appearance among Malta's people. Moreover each abbreviation is followed by a number. Churches and chapels are indicated by a normal Arabic number, while Roman numbers refer to altars and feasts. These abbreviations follow immediately at the end of this Introduction.

A further help in the consultation of this work is provided by a number of charts giving the topographical distribution of each Marian devo-[p.4]-tion in both islands It has been impossible to include in these charts the Marian devotions mentioned in the second part of this book.

This work, which has entailed a considerable amount of intensive re-search in its preparation, has tried to establish, through documentary evidence, the development of Marian devotional worship in the Island of Malta during the two centuries which form the theme of the 9th Inter-national Mariological Congress being held in cur island home this year. However, it was felt highly necessary in this publication to delve also deeply, in so far as this was possible, into previous centuries. Thereby, it was possible to establish the antiquity of some of these Marian devotions, as well as their continuity and eventual adaptations and modifications.

It is to be hoped that this work, in a very modest way, will form a milestone in the history of the devotional life of the Maltese Nation, which has, since time immemorial, found in Mary a source of great spiritual nourishment and help on various occasions, whether involving National or personal needs. The pages that follow are indeed an excellent documentation in this regard.

____________

PARTICULAR ABBREVIATIONS

As. = Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
N = Nativity of Our Lady
An. = Annunciation of the Lord's Birth to Mary
Vis. = Visitation of Our Lady to St Elisabeth Porto Salvo
Pur. = Purification of Our Lady
Pr. = Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple
S/IC = "Succursus" Madonna and the Immaculate Conception
P/S = Pieta — Our Lady of Sorrows
Gr. = Our Lady of Graces
Ch. = Our Lady of Charity
Chain = Our Lady of the Chain
R = Our Lady of the Rosary
Car. = Our Lady of Mount Carmel
G = Our Lady of Consolation or The Girdle
L = Our Lady of Light
GC = Good Counsel Madonna


[1] Acts of the Apostles , Ch. 27, 39-44; Ch. 28, 1-11.

[2] Ant. Ferrua SJ, "Le catacombe di Malta" in La Civiltà Cattolica, Rome 1949, 505-515 ; Vinc. Borg, "Une Île et ses hypogées de l'ère des premiers chrétiens" in Les dossiers de l'archéologie No 19, Paris 1976, 52‑67