[p.133] OUR LADY OF THE CHAIN

One of the more popular saints in medieval Malta was undoubtedly St Leonard, the patron saint for deliverance from the bondage of slavery. The Maltese Islands were an easy prey for skirmishes and sudden invasions of various forms whereby many of their inhabitants had to face the slave market and even die in slavery. Moreover !many earned their living as sailors and fishermen and this form of sea-faring life was quite prone to lead them into the perils of slavery. The medieval paintings at St Agatha's crypt include a number of reproductions of St Leonard, while a similar one stands also in another crypt beneath the Annunciation church of the Carmelites on the way to Dingli, To these one has to add various churches and altars spread throughout these islands dedicated to him. He was also included in the altar piece of one of the three altars venerating Our Lady of the Chain, namely the one at Qormi.[1]

Outside Malta, devotion to Our Lady of the Chain had its origins in another island near our own, namely Sicily. Its feast was commemorated on the 18th August at her church in Palermo. Tradition holds that on that day, in 1390, three persons, who had been condemned to death, were miraculously freed from their chains while they took refuge during a storm in a church known as 'Santa Maria del Porto'. Eventually devotion towards this church considerably increased. It was rebuilt and in 1602 was reopened to public worship.[2]

The devotion to Our Lady of the Chain was introduced in Messina in 1518 when a priest built a church in her honour. Sailors and sea-faring people before leaving the harbour and on returning back home, used to visit this church, while special prayers sought the Virgin's intervention and protection to escape the perils of slavery.[3]

At ,Catania it was introduced even earlier under King Martin (1391-1409), almost contemporanously as her veneration at Palermo. Her sanctuary is still held in high esteem at Aci Catena.[4] This worship is traceable also elsewhere in Italy.[5]

Our Lady 'della Catena' found its way in Maltese devotional life before the very first decades of the 17th century and was restricted to three parishes all of which stood near the harbour area, namely Senglea,[6] Żabbar[7] and Qormi.[8] Three altars were eventually set up here in her honour.

The earliest of these appeared at Żabbar before 1600. The other two were erected after 1630. At Qormi there was, originally, a picture of this Madonna at St Andrew's church where a congregation of about fifty per-[p.134]-sons was already established in 1634. About 1650, this picture was transferred to the parish church and an altar erected in her honour in one of the transepts which had, just then, been built. The above mentioned congregation moved also to the same church. On this occasion it was specifically referred to as dedicated to Our Lady of the Chain.

The altar at Senglea was erected in 1631 through popular devotion. In 1633 an endowment provided tor the celebration of seven masses to commemorate the seven years of forced stay in Egypt which Our Lady and her family had to sustain. This particular foundation brought out a parallelism between these years in the life of the Holy Family and the separation from one's own family resulting from years of bondage in slavery

The two altars at Qormi and Senglea had a very short life. The former in 1679 had to yield its place to another Marian title, namely the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple. The one at Senglea had a shorter span of existence. When the new parish church was built no particular altar was allocated to it. The last to disappear was the Żabbar altar. Though it continued to function till the middle of the 18th century, in 1754 it was rededicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The security Malta received through the stay of the Order of St John in the island diminished considerably the perils of slavery. This factor may have influenced the lessening in the popular devotion both to St Leonard and to Our Lady of the Chain particularly from the second half of the 17th century onwards.

Nevertheless various Marian shrines in Malta are still endowed with reminders evocative of slavery, even though these shrines were not dedicated to Our Lady of the Chain. One can still behold hanging on the sides of some of these sanctuaries chairs, ropes and similar objects reminiscent of years in captivity.

OUR LADY OF THE CHAIN
ALTARS

QORMI

Chain I

A picture of Our Lady of the Chain had been hanging in St Andrew's church at Qormi. In 1631 a congregation in honour of Our Lady was erected in this church whose members in 1634 already numbered about 50 persons.1 On the 19th September 1632 Antonina widow of Luke Casha promised that if the above mentioned picture was transferred to the parish church she would provide six scudi for its feast. Everything was duly entered on that day in the records of Notary Gio. Domenico Pace. Her wish was duly accomplished. In 1653 this altar had already been set up in the said parish church.2 The congregation also transferred itself thither.3 The records of the 1656 Pastoral Visit state that a Sodality 'Servorum Beatissimae Virginis della Catena' had been duly founded by Bishop Balaguer on this altar during this Pastoral Visit.4

[p.135] This altar however had a short lived existence as in 1679 it was re-dedicated to the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple.5

SENGLEA

Chain II

This altar in Senglea's parish church appears for the first time in 1631. Its origin was the outcome of popular piety6 and its feast was held on the Second Sunday after Easter. Vincenzo Seychel provided a bequest for the celebration of se-seven annual masses to commemorate the seven years stay of Our Lady away from her homeland in Egypt, as detailed in the records of Notary Vincenzo Xeberras on the 8th September 1633.7 When the new parish church was built, its altar piece which represented Our Lady, St Joseph surrounded by a group of angels8 seems to have been transferred to the main altar of this new church.9 The altar of Our Lady of the Chain was not included in this new building10 while its feast began to be celebrated on the main altar itself.11

ŻABBAR

Chain III

In Dusina's days there was a chapel within the cemetery attached to the church of Our Lady of Graces, which was dedicated to St Zachary.12 Its altar piece represented Our Lady of the Chain in the middle with St Luke and St Zachary on each side. Paolo Gusman succeeded in building a new chapel to which this altar piece was duly transferred before 1600.13 When the new parish church began to be built, Gusman's chapel was demolished. However it was substituted by an altar dedicated to the 'Catena' Madonna in the new edifice.14 This altar was still in use during the first half of the 18th century.15 However in 1754 it was rededicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.16

MALTA - OUR LADY OF THE CHAIN (Ch)

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.


[1] In Dusina's report, St Leonard had churches dedicated to him in the following villages and parishes: Balzan (AAM, VA 1575C, 225r); B'kara (Ibid., 43v and 155v); Gozo, at Għammar (Ibid., 165v); Kirkop (Ibid., 91r-v); Mosta (Ibid., 35r); Naxxar (Ibid., 30r); Qormi (Ibid., 80v); Żejtun/Żabbar (Ibid., 157r-v) and Żurrieq (Ibid., 103v-104r). To these one has also to include the church of St Leonard outside Mdina where the first Carmelites who came to Malta had settled down and where they were still residing during Dusina's days.

[2] F.G. Holweck, Fasti Mariani, 178; Giacomo Medica, I Santuari Mariani d'Italia, 649.

[3] F.G. Holweck, op. cit., 174-175. Her feast at Messina was held on the 16th August.

[4] Giacomo Medica, op. cit., 624.

[5] Ibid.. 605, 609.

[6] Confer No Chain II.

[7] Confer No Chain III.

[8] Confer No Chain I.

1 AAM, VP 1634, 46r-v.

2 AAM, VP 1653-54, 181r.

3 Ibid., 186v.

4 AAM, VP 1656-59, 48v.

5 AAM, VP 1678-80, 357v-358r.

6 AAM, VP 1621-31, 500v.

7 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 268r-v.

8 AAM, VP 1644-46, 275v.

9 AAM, VP 1678-80, 485r.

10 This altar was mentioned for the last time in 1644 (AAM, VP 1644-46, 275v).

11 AAM, VP 1728-29, 113v-114r.

12 AAM, VA 1575C, 79r.

13 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 283r-v.

14 AAM, VP 1644-46, 168v.

15 AAM, VP 1656-59, 170v; VP 1728‑29, 585r; VP 1736-40, p. 714. In 1673, the church of St Nicholas ta' Żonqol was closed to public worship and its altar piece was deposited on the 'Catena' altar at Żabbar's parish church (AAM, VP 1671-74, 314v-315r). Between 1747 and 1754, St Nicholas appears as the titular saint of this altar (AAM, VP 1744-51, 550r; VP 1751-56, 436r-437r).

16 AAM, VP 1751-56, 438v-439r; VP 1758-60 II, 496r; VP 1771-74/77, 502r-v,