Alessio Erardi (1669-1727), Our Lady of Graces, Parish Church, Żabbar*


This Marian title has attracted considerable attention and popularity in various parts of Christianity. In Italy, its feast was celebrated in various dioceses, particularly from the 17th century onwards, on different days of the liturgical year.[1]

In the Maltese Islands, this particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin has always been closely associated with one of the oldest and most venerated Marian sanctuaries existing in Malta, namely her church at Żabbar. A detailed inventory, compiled in 1570, giving a list of all the furnishing then existing in this church, gives a direct insight of the high esteem which it enjoyed, just five years after the end of the Great Siege of Malta whose devastations had left their mark and imprint everywhere through-out the island.[2]

Both at Żabbar, as well as elsewhere, it was normal to celebrate the feast of the Graces Madonna on the 8th ,September coinciding with the liturgical feast of her Nativity.[3] Incidentally this was something characteristic of the Maltese church as no other part of Christianity commemorated this Marian title on that day.

Before the end of the 16th century, there were another two parishes, besides Żabbar, where this form of Marian worship had also been introduced, namely Żurrieq in 1585,[4] and Safi in 1598.[5] In both instances an altar, by then, had been set up in the parish church of each respective village.

The first sixty years of the 17th century witness a substantial wide-spreading of this devotion. Six churches previously dedicated to another Marian title adopted the Graces Madonna as their titular,[6] while at Qrendi about 1658, a newly built church was exclusively dedicated to her.[7]

Apart from these churches, a larger number of altars in her honour, thirteen in all, were erected during the same span of years.[8] The earliest to appear was one at the cathedral church in 1604. This altar had previously been dedicated to St Angelo the Martyr.[9] This same method was also adopted at Naxxar in 1616,[10] and at Rabat in 1618,[11] where this worship was introduced on already existing altars substituting thereby their titulars. Elsewhere however new altars were set up in various churches.[12]

After 1660 one notices a lulling down in this devotion. No churches were dedicated to the Graces Madonna. However, a few other altars continued to appear. These are detectable, at least, in another four different parishes.[13]

[p.212] The first one of this group was erected at Għaxiaq about 1672[14] and the last one in 1752 at St Saviour's church, Attard.[15]

Thus till the end of the 18th century eight churches and eighteen altars had honoured this Marian devotion. It has however to be admitted that some of these either ceased to exist or even changed their titular to another form of Marian worship. There were three churches[16] and seven altars which underwent these modifications.[17]

One highly important development in this worship within the context of our island is its close and intrinsic relationship with the devotion to-wards the Souls in Purgatory. This aspect in the religious life of the Maltese Islands was already deeply rooted among our people long before the beginning of the 17th century. The first Monday of each month was reserved to suffragate these souls particularly through the celebration of the mass.

When the devotion to Our Lady of Graces began to spread itself in Malta, this form of christian fraternal piety found its direct insertion and symbolical expression within it. The iconography of the Graces Madonna, thenceforth, began to be highly distinguishable through this particular link, namely the direct intercession and intervention of the Blessed Virgin on behalf of the Souls in Purgatory. Her figure was represented, in fact, in a most intimate symbolic expression of maternal love and affection towards them, shedding on them her virginal milk thereby to relieve them in their distress.[18] Alessio Arena, during the first decades of the 18th century, followed also this traditional symbolism when he was commissioned to paint a new altar piece for 2abbar's sanctuary.9 On various instances, at a later date, some puritan attitude must have found serious objections to this meaningful expression, which could have appeared somewhat unseemly and unholy to popular mentality. Pictures were retouched to cover up this exclusive characteristic of the Graces Madonna. What meant to bring to the limelight Mary's powerful intercession, symbolised in her maternal milk through which she sustained God's divine con when He inserted Himself in history and took upon Himself human existence, disappeared from the Maltese context which had given to it such prominence.



Gr. 1

Tal-Ħerba In 1618, the altar piece of the Assumption church known as tal-Ħerba represented Our Lady of Graces.1 By 1644, a new church was built in front of this shrine and its new altar piece was then given an identical description.2 However a few years later it was clearly specified that this new church had been dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.3

Gr. 2

An Assumption church at Ħal Sajjied, already reported in the 1575 Apostolic Visit,4 changed its titular sometime about 1636. Its altar piece, representing God the Father, Our Lady and St Catherine, was then definitively described representing the Graces Madonna. Incidentally this painting was signed by the artist, namely Antonio de Ristagiro.5 When this church was closed to worship in 1659,6 this painting was transferred to the Nativity church which stood in the same neighbourhoods.7


Gr. 3

In 1615, the altar piece of a small Assumption chapel situated on the left hand side of the Birmiftuħ parish church,8 was described as a Graces Madonna.9 The Souls in Purgatory were also included in this painting.10


Gr. 4

Santa Maria tax-Xagħra This was originally another Assumption church built at Ħal Missilmet just outside Naxxar.11 Sometime about 1653 it was rebuilt.12 Thenceforth it was normally referred to as a 'delle Grazie' church and enjoyed great veneration among the people of Naxxar and its surrounding villages.13


Gr. 5

Sometime before 1658, Angelo Spiteri built a Graces church in the Ħal Sajjied neighbourhoods within the limits of St Matthew's valley. On the 26th November 1656 he made a bequest on its behalf.14 Its feast was held on the 8th September, but in 1781 it was transferred to the following Sunday to coincide with the feast of the Name of Our Lady.15


Gr. 6

The 1570s offer already sufficient documentation testifying the importance which this Marian shrine had already acquired in Maltese life.16 Incidentally, it was till [p.122] then the only place where Our Lady of Graces was venerated. Pope Sixtus V granted a hundred days indulgence to all who visited this church. It was quite normal to pay such visits on each Wednesday.17 The altar piece of this sanctuary included the coat of arms of Grand Master Hugh de Loubens de Verdalle (1582-1595) indicating that he was its donator.18 It represented Our Lady of Graces together with St John the Baptist, St Catherine, St Leonard and the Souls in Purgatory.19 During the early decades of the 17th century itself various ex voti surrounded this altar piece, while masses were normally said everyday.20 In 1616, Żabbar had been raised to an independent parish.21

During the 1640's a new church began to be built.22 In 1658 the main aisle was ready and was being used for worship while the old one was retained as a sacristy.23 The completion of this edifice, devised on a Latin cross plan, took years to finish. By 1723, the interior of the whole building was ready24 and a new altar piece was also provided, the work of Alessio Arena.25 The older one however which had an oval shape, was inserted beneath this new painting on the titular altar,26 while devotion to this important Marian sanctuary continued to flourish undisturbed.27

Originally its feast was held on the 8th September but through a concession of the Congregation of Rites, given on the 12th September 1733, it was transferred to the following Sunday.28

It was customary for people, mainly from the cities around Żabbar, to visit this Marian shrine on Ash Wednesday and seek Our Lady's intervention for the remission of their sins.29

The titular altar piece of this sanctuary was solemnly crowned by Archbishop Michael Gonzi on the 2nd September 1951.30



Ta' Godor.

This church, originally dedicated to the Assumption,31 from 1621 onwards changed its dedication to Our Lady of Graces,32 however its feast till 1776 continued to be celebrated on the 15th August. During that year authorisation was duly granted to begin celebrating its feast on the 8th September as the Assumption feast was commemorated both at the parish church itself as well as in another small church at Żebbuġ.33


Alessio Erardi (1669-1727), Our Lady of Graces, Collegiate Church, Cospicua*

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


[p.124] ŻEJTUN

Gr. 8

The Visitation church, near St Saviour church, adopted also the Graces Madonna for its titular in 1636.34 This church was however canonically desecrated a few years afterwards, namely in 1654.35



Gr. I

This altar in the parish church, set up through the people's devotion, was duly endowed by Giovanni Zerafa on the 15th August 1644. The records of Notary Gio. Pietro Attard register this donation.36 In 1653, the Sodality of the Souls in Purgatory was established on this altar.37


Sometime before 1752, a similar side-altar was erected in the church of St Saviour.38 The old altar piece, which previously adorned the above-mentioned altar, was placed here.39



Enrico Zerafa, in 1630, founded this altar at Cospicua's parish church40 and on the 26th September 1645 endowed it with an ecclesiastical living recorded on that day by Notary Michele Ralli.41 When the new church was built this altar was included in it.42


Gr. IV

An altar dedicated to St John the Baptist and St Anne and founded in the old parish church before 1672,43 in 1709 was left in the care of Aloisius Agius who had planned to rededicate it to St Rocque.44 This gentleman had made substantial contributions towards the building of the new baroque parish church. In 1743, Bishop Alpheran de Bussan authorised him to insert this altar in one of the transepts of this church and rededicated it to Our Lady of Graces.45 St John and St Anne were also included and venerated on this new altar.46


Gr. V

In 1708 Francesco and Grazia Camilleri provided an endowment for the erection of an altar in the parish church. This plan was materialised in 1728. St Francis de Paule was also included in its altar piece.47


Gr. VI

The altar piece at the Belliegħa church was, at times, described as representing Our Lady of Graces.48

[p.125] LUQA


This Madonna was included in 1644 on St Julian's altar at the parish church.49



A picture of Our Lady of Graces was placed in 1604 on a side altar previously dedicated to St Angelo Martyr, at the Cathedral.50 In 1634 it was replaced by another altar piece representing Our Lady of Itria.51


Gr. IX

Domenico Conti founded this altar in the parish church before 1644,52 on which the Sodality of the Dying was eventually established in 1686.53 About 1778, this altar was rededicated to the Crucifix. However a picture of Our Lady of Graces was allocated a prominent place at its side.54

Gr. X

A side altar in the church of St Paul the Hermit at Wied il-Għasel, previously dedicated to the Purification of Our Lady, sometime before 1678 changed its titular to the Graces Madonna. Giovanni IMangion in 1655 had provided a bequest for her feast.55


Gr. XI

A side altar at the parish church, originally dedicated to the Assumption, after 1615, through the intervention of Biagio Bezzina, changed its titular to honour on it the Graces Madonna.56 When the new church was built, a prominent place was allocated to this altar in one of the transepts. It was duly endowed by Don Nicola Mangion, UJD.57



Sometime before 1699 a side altar was set up at Our Lady of Sorrows church58 which continued to function throughout the 18th century.59



Mario Zammit introduced this Marian devotion at Qormi's parish church where he founded an altar in its honour about 1615.60 Shop-owners and hawkers of Qormi used to look after its needs. Its altar piece included also the figures of St Blaise and St Lawrence.61 Its feast used to be held on the 8th September.62



The main altar piece of Tal-Ħniena church in 1636 was described as portraying Our Lady of Gaces.63

[p.126] RABAT

Gr. XV

From 1618 onwards, a side altar in the parish church changes its titular from the Purification to Our Lady of Graces.64 More than a century afterwards, namely in 1730, the people of Rabat requested a rededication of this same altar which was also granted them. Thenceforth the Immaculate Conception was venerated on this altar.65



A Nativity of Our Lady altar in the parish church, from 1667 onwards is described as a Graces altar.66 An endowment provided by Ignatius Ellul and recorded by Notary Giovanni Debono on the 3rd April 1598, provided for the celebration of its feast which, during the 18th century, was held on Sunday following the 8th September.67



Dr Leonardo Demanuele UJD in 1640 founded this altar in the parish church. Its feast was held on Sunday during the octave of the Nativity, lest it coincided with Senglea's titular feast held on the 8th September.68 This altar was also given an appropriate site in the new parish church.69



In 1639, Mario Gauci made a bequest for the foundation of an altar in the old parish church. His relative Fr Giuseppe Gauci implemented the setting up of this altar by 1644.70 No particular place was allocated to it in the new parish church and its burthens were transferred to its main altar.71



Between the two city gates of this city, one of which was known as 'la porta di sopra', there was an altar dedicated to Our Lady of Graces. This altar was mentioned between 1627 and 1646.72


Gr. XX

In the Marian sanctuary itself, there was also a side altar, mentioned only in 1615, in honour of Our Lady of Graces.73 Afterwards it was dedicated to St Rocque.74



As far back as 1585, there was already such a side altar at the old parish church of Żurrieq.75 When the new parish church was built this Marian devotion was incorporated to St Rocque's altar.76


The information presented covers the subject till the end of the 18th century.
Every number, shown next to a locality, indicates the presence of a church, an altar or a feast in that area.
These numbers are references to more details given in the respective section of the text.
ARABIC NUMBERS, e.g. 5, indicate churches that retained their titular and remained open to worship till the end of the 18th century.
UNDERLINED NUMBERS, indicate items that had ceased to be in liturgical use, or that had changed their titular.

* Confer: this publication Note 25 on page 122.

[1] F.G. Holweck, Fasti Mariani, passim.

[2] AAM, VP 1570, 30r-31v.

[3] At Senglea, as early as the first half of the 17th century, this feast was held on Sunday following the 8th September. Otherwise, it would have coincided with the titular feast of the parish church itself (Confer No Gr. XVII) Żabbar itself changed to this same Sunday in 1733 (AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 715).

[4] Confer No Gr. XXI.

[5] Confer No Gr. XVI.

[6] Confer Nos Gr. 1-4, 7, 8.

[7] Confer No Gr. 5.

[8] Confer Nos. Gr I, III, VIII, IX, XI, XIII, XIV, XV, XXVII.

[9] Confer No Gr. VIII.

[10] Confer No Gr. XI.

[11] Confer No Gr. XV.

[12] Confer Nos Gr. I, III, IX, XIII, XVII, XVIII, XX, XXI.

[13] Confer Nos Gr. II, IV, VII, XII.

[14] Confer No Gr. IV.

[15] Confer No Gr. II. The only parishes where this devotion does not seem to have been introduced were Balzan, Dingli, Għargħur, Mellieha, Mqabba and Tarxien. At Valletta, though there is no trace of its presence in churches under the Diocesan Bishop's jurisdiction, there were altars in honour of Our Lady of Graces at Porto Salvo's parish church (AAM, VP 1588-1602, 416v-417r) as well as at the Carmelite (Confer the study of Fr Valentine Borg Gusman OC, in this publication), the Augustinian (Confer Fr Henry Schembri OSA, Ibid.) and the Franciscan Frairs Minor (Confer Fr George Aquilina OFM, Ibid.) churches.

[16] Confer Nos Gr. 1, 2, 8.

[17] Confer Nos Gr. VIII, IX, XV, XVIII-XXI.

[18] AAM, VP 1656-58, 143r (Attard); VP 1653-54, 179v (Qormi); Ibid., 265v (Birmiftuħ); VP 1758-60 I, 564v-565r (Lia). In these instances there is a direct reference to this symbolic attitude of the Blessed Virgin.

1 AAM, VP 1618, 42r.

2 AAM, VP 1644-46, 212v.

3 AAM, VP 1656-59, 164v; VP 1667-68, 659r; Confer No N 2.

4 AAM, VP 1575C, 44v. Confer No As. 11.

5 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 219v-220r; VP 1644-46, 213r.

6 AAM, VP 1656-59, 165r.

7 AAM, VP 1714-20, 588v-589r.

8 Confer No As. 20.

9 AAM, VP 1653-54, 133v.

10 AAM, VP 165-54, 265v.

11 Confer No As. 42.

12 AAM, VP 1653-54, 133v.

13 AAM, VP 1656-59,190v-191r; VP1758-60 II, 225v.

14 AAM, VP 1656-59, 116r-v; VP 1662‑63, 362r-v.

15 AAM, VP 1781, 464r.

16 AAM. VP 1570, 30r-31v; VA 1575C, 78v-79r,

17 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 282r-v: "de Iniunctis aut quomodolibet debitis penitentiis in Domino relaxerit".

18 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 72v. AAM, VP 1635-37B, 72v.

19 AAM, VP 1621-31, 304r-v; VP 1685‑87B. 415r.

20 AAM, VP 1634, 107v.

21 AAM, VP 1615-16, 267r-268r.

22 AAM, VP 1644-46, 167r-168v; VP1653-54, 280v.

23 AAM, VP 1656-59, 170v.

24 AAM, VP 1722-23. 504r.

25 C.J. Bonavia, "Żabbar's Titular Painting and its Artist" in Sunday Times of Malta, 5/9/1976.

26 AAM, VP 1722-23, 504r: VP 1728-29, 582r; VP 1736-40, pp. 708-709.

27 AAM, VP 1751-56, 434v-435r; VP 1785-60 II, 493r-v; VP 1771-74/77, 499r; VP 1781, 516v.

28 AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 715.

29 Ibid., up. 705-706.

30 Dun Gius. Zarb, Is-Santwarju tal‑Madonna tal-Grazzja, Malta 1951; Gwida għall-Ġrajjiet is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Grazzja. Malta 1955; Żabbar Sanctuary and the Knights of the Order of St John, Malta 1969; 20 Sena Ilu. Malta 1971; E.B. Vella, Ħaż-Żabbar bil‑Ġrajja Tiegħu, Malta 1926, passim.

31 Confer No As. 83.

32 AAM, VP 1621-31, 101r; VP 1635‑37B, 200r-v.

33 AAM, Suppliche 9 (1762-76 II) 1168r-v.

* Confer: Dominic Cutajar Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, "The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and Souls in Purgatory" in Mario Buhagiar (Ed.), Marian Art during the 17th and 18th Centuries, Malta 1983, 43-44.

34 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 85v.

35 AAM, VP 1656-59, 204r.

36 AAM, VP 1644-46, 75r-v.

37 AAM, VP 1653-54, 51r.

38 AAM, VP 1751-56, 241v.

39 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 285r.

40 AAM, VP 1634, 124r; VP 1635-37B, 253r-v; VP 1644-46, 38r.

41 AAM, Benefizi, Vol. 1698-99, No 11, p. 15.

42 AAM, VP 1722-23, 118r; VP 1728-29, 155v.

43 AAM, VP 1678-80, 169r-v.

44 AAM, VP 1685-87B, 396r-v; VP1699-1700 ab Alia, 188v-189r.

45 In 1709, it was rededicated to St Rocque (AAM, VP 1708-10, 360r-v).

46 AAM, VP 1744-51, 398v; VP 1758‑60 II, 445v-446r.

47 AAM, VP 1728-29, 489v; VP 1758‑60, II, 421r.

48 Confer No As. 27. AAM, VP 1758-60 I, 564v-565r.

49 AAM, VP 1644-46, 60r-v.

50 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 292r. This same painting could have been there even before 1604 (AAM, VP1588-1602, 74r-v).

51 AAM, VP 1634, 5r.

52 AAM, VP 1644-46, 70r-v.

53 AAM, VP 1699-1700 ab Alia, 319v.

54 AAM, Suppliche 10 (1776-1785), 180r-182r; VP 1781, 234r.

55 AAM, VP 1678-80, 56v.

56 AAM, VP 1615-16, 140v.

57 AAM, VP 1653-54, 127r-v.

58 AAM, VP 1699-1700 ab Alia, 451r.

59 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 128r; VP 1781, 72v.

60 AAM, VP 1615-16, 150r.

61 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 55r-v.

62 AAM, VP 1781, 572r.

63 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 120r-v.

64 AAM, VP 1618, 181v.

65 AAM, VP 1758-60 I, 351r-353v. Confer No S/IC XXIV.

66 AAM, VP 1667-68. 476v; VP 1685-87B. 232v; VP 1692-98, 145r.

67 AAM, VP 1708-10, 164v; VP 1722-23, 380r: VP 1758-60 II, 414v.

68 AAM, VP 1653-54, 81v-82r.

69 AAM, VP 1685-87B, 103r-v; VP 1771-74/77, 315v-316r.

70 AAM, VP 1644-46, 107v; VP 1653-54, 176v-177r; VP1656-69, 124r.

71 AAM, VP 1699-1700 ab Alia, 75v.

72 AAM, VP 1621-31, 243r, 405r; VP 1644-46, 255v.

73 AAM, VP 1615-16, 263v-264r.

74 AAM, VP 1621-31, 111v, 305v.

75 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 24v-25r; VP1634, 68v-69r.

76 AAM, VP 1653-54, 225v-226r.