Alessio Erardi (1669-1727), Our Lady of the Rosary (1702), Lia Parish Church*

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


The Rosary devotion was the most popular form of Marian worship which found its way in Maltese life from the 16th century onwards. Its introduction was due to the pastoral activity of the Dominican Friars who had by then, three priories one at Rabat, another one at Vittoriosa and a third one at Valletta. The church attached to the last priory had also achieved parish church status.[1]

The method adopted in the propagation of this devotion was the establishment of a Rosary confraternity in each determinate parish of the diocese after it had already been introduced in Dominican churches. Abroad, the more prominent of these confraternities was the one established at Cologne in 1475. The definitive papal approval to such confraternities was given by Pope Leo X in 1520.[2]

The earliest Rosary confraternity canonically erected in a Maltese parish, apart from the parish of Porto Salvo at Valletta, was founded at Siġġiewi. The Father General of the Dominican Order, Fr Sisto Fabri gave his authorisation for this transaction in a letter dated 1st July 1585.[3] During the same year, the parish of Birmiftuħ sought the intervention of the Administrator of the Diocese, Mgr Libertano to obtain a similar authorisation.[4] Letters to this effect were given by the same Father General on the 23rd February 1588.[5] On that same day he also sanctioned the establishment of a similar confraternity at Żebbuġ.[6] A few months later, namely on the 25th November of the same year, Żurrieq parish received similar letters giving the formal approval for another confraternity.[7] During the following twelve years, that is till the end of the 16th century, all existing parishes in Malta had been successful in being enhanced with a Rosary confraternity.[8] The normal procedure from 1575 onwards was to have both the Holy Sacrament as well as the Rosary confraternities established in each individual parish.

The prominence which the Rosary confraternity attained in parochial life results from various factors. First and foremost the number of its membership, which was quite considerable in each instance. Moreover once the Latin cross plan in the building of parish churches was adopted, from the first decades of the 17th century onwards, it was quite normal to allocate a chapel in the transept of these churches to the Rosary confraternity. These chapels acquired considerable importance, to such an extent that all bequests, particularly throughout the 17th century, which were directly related to Marian worship were normally annexed to the Rosary altar.

[p.138] The importance and great interest shown in these Marian altars is also all too evident from the point of view of their artistic decoration. Immediately after obtaining the allocation of a site within the parish church, a picture of the Rosary Madonna surrounded by the fifteen mysteries was provided. Some of the early specimens of this picture are still available.[9] Moreover the earliest artistic stone sculptured richly carved reredos of Maltese altars are found embellishing these altars. First among these is the one at Siġġiewi's old parish church which goes back to the 1630s and is still extant though in a derelict state. Similarly extant is another one at the old parish church of Birkirkara dated 1649. One may safely state that these altars were the harbingers of baroque ornamentation which was to develop considerably during the second half of the 17th century.[10]

The members of these confraternities used to meet on each first Sunday of the month when they received Holy Communion during a mass celebrated on their altar followed by a. small procession within the church precincts. On the first Sunday of October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was celebrated with due solemnity. On certain instances they used also to commemorate the feast of Our Lady of the Roses on the first Sunday of May.[11]

On both occasions a procession winded its way through the streets of the parish. During the last decades of the 17th century, following the custom already introduced by the Dominican Friars at Valletta and Rabat, a statue of the Rosary Madonna was carried in these processions, particularly during the titular feast.[12] Later a relic of Our Lady was also introduced.[13] These happen to be the earliest regular annual processions in Malta's parish life when a statue of Our Lady was also included.

The October feast was Characterised also with some other distinctive celebrations. A fifteen days preparation, known as the 'Quindicina' was introduced, during which mass was celebrated on each day as well as the recitation of the Rosary. The earliest references to this 'Quindicina' are traceable, so far, to the middle of the 17th century. At Siġġiewi's old parish church this devotion used to be held through popular piety. This must have been before the 1680s when the new parish church was built.[14] During the 1680s it was already in use at Żabbar.[15] Moreover, in some instances, though at a later date, a further elaboration of the 'Quindicina was added. Be-[p.139]-quests, providing for the celebration of masses on the fifteen Saturdays preceding the October feast were at times also afforded.[16]

During the 18th century, the Rosary devotion acquired a more wide-spread diffusion and insertion in parish life. In 1640 Bishop Balaguer prohibited the recitation of the Rosary in public. This custom was then being introduced by the Dominican Friars in their churches.[17] with the passing of time this episcopal enactment was considerably mitigated. Thus at Żejtun, sometime before 1729, Mariuzza Caruana provided a bequest for the recitation of one third of the 'Rosary during the `Aurora' mass in the parish church. There was no objection in the acceptance of this pious bequest.[18]

A similar provision was made at Għaxiaq in 1728.[19] During the second half of the 18th century various individuals were keen in introducing this custom in their own parish churches.[20] A detail resulting from a petition forwarded to the Bishop in 1768, requesting the acceptance of a bequest providing for the daily recitation of the Rosary during the Aurora mass at Birkirkara's parish church, gives an interesting insight regarding the popularity which this custom had attained. It is stated therein that various parish churches had already adopted this practice.[21]

Another particular devotion closely related to the Rosary altar was the Christmas novena. This consisted in the celebration of an early mass, followed in the evening by other devotional practices on this altar throughout the nine days preceding Christmas. Żejtun provides the earliest written documentation in this regard. Ventura Busuttil thought it wise to secure the continuation of this devotional custom by providing a bequest for this purpose. The records of Notary Pietro Vella dated 11th January 1622 give the details of this donation.[22] Throughout the second half of the 17th century and during the first decades of the following century, this novena had been introduced in all Malta's parish churches as well as in all churches under the care of male and female religious persons.[23] The chancellor of the 1685-87 Pastoral Visit, referring to this aspect of Maltese devotional life, reported that 'quae devotio appellatur novena' which seems to imply that the word novena in his days was exclusively applied, so far, to the one preceeding the feast of Our Lord's birth.[24] In parish churches it was normally held on [p.140] the Rosary altar while the confraternity provided whatever was needed for it proper observance.[25]

The vitality of the Rosary confraternity in Maltese parish life and milieu rendered their chapel or altar in such a key position that it could quite easily be identified as the Lady's chapel within the parish church itself.




In 1594, this altar in the old parish church was already built. The Sicilian Father Provincial of the Dominican Friars had granted his authorisation for the confraternity's establishment.1 In 1615 there were already twenty-seven members.2 Thomas Dingli, the renowned Maltese architect was, for some time, its Rector.3



When Balzan was given parish status in 1659, the confraternity was immediately set up.4 During the very first years of its existence twenty-five persons were already enrolled as members.5 When the transepts of the new parish church were ready, sometime before 1699, their altar was allocated in the right side transept facing the Crucifix altar.6



In 1601, the Rosary confraternity was already fully functioning and had its own chapel on the side of the old medieval parish church.7 It was founded sometime before 1593.8 When the old Santa Maria parish church was nearing completion their altar was placed in the right hand transept and by 1649 was already decorated with stone sculpture.9 Eventually, this altar was transferred to St Helen's parish church once its building was ready and was assigned the left hand side transept.10



The Rosary chapel at the parish church was ready by 161511 while its confraternity had been duly erected on the 17th April 1602.12 It is interesting to note that a Marian congregation had been also established here about 1624. Similar congregations had previously already come into existence at Valletta, Vittoriosa and Senglea.13 At Burmula its members used to meet in the Rosary chapel on each Sunday after Vespers un‑[p.141]-der the guidance and direction of a Jesuit father who delivered a sermon on these occasions. In his absence, the parish priest used to per-form the same duties. In 1627 there were twenty members enrolled in this congregation.14



The Rosary confraternity was established at Dingli in virtue of an authorisation given on the 8th March 1697 by the Father General of the Dominican Order.15 Strangely enough in 1771 it is stated that it was founded on the 15th April 1736.16



Although the execution of the decree creating Gargur as an independent parish had not as yet been duly executed, Fr Ludovico Stella, the Vicar General of the Dominicans sometime before 1608, had already sanctioned the canonical erection of its Rosary confraternity.17 In 1634 and 1636 its members amounted to twenty and thirty men respectively.18



A Rosary altar in the old Birmiftuħ parish church was authorised to be built before 1585.19 On the 23rd February 1588 the Dominican Father General approved the establishing of a confraternity within this parish.20 When the new parish church of Gudja was built the confraternity and its altar were transferred to one of its transepts.21



In 1634, an altar previously dedicated to St Gregory had to relinquish its site in the old parish church and be replaced by the Rosary Madonna and her confraternity.22 The confraternity was established in this parish on the 17th June 1628.23 As usual, this same al-tar was later incorporated in the new parish church built during the 18th century and was given the traditional prominent position.24



On the 3rd June 1596, the parish of Kirkop duly executed the letters of authorisation given at Rome by the Head of the Dominican Order on the 10th May of the same year. Thereby the Rosary confraternity came into existence.25 In 1600 they had already their own altar in the parish church.26



The Lia Rosary confraternity traces its origins to the letters of the Dominican Father General dated 21st August 1599.27 In 1618, it is stated that its members were numerous.28 In 1700 it was trans­ferred from the old parish church [p.142] to the new one which had then reached its completion.29



Immediately as Lucia was granted a parish status in 1634, its Rosary confraternity on the 17th October of that same year was aggregated to the Roman Archconfraternity.30 Two years afterwards its membership counted thirty individuals.31



Though the Mellieħa shrine ceased to function as a parish church during the second half of the 16th century, devotion towards Our Lady of the Rosary was also established there including her confraternity. The Father General gave his authorisation for such a confraternity on the 10th July 159432 and its altar found a suitable place in this same hallowed sanctuary.33



After its dismemberment from Naxxar parish in 1610, on the 11th February 1612 Mosta was duly authorised to have its own Rosary confraternity.34 In 1615, it had its own chapel35 and three years later its members amounted to thirty.36 In the 1620s the site of this chapel was needed for the building of the new parish church, but its altar was duly incorporated in this new structure.37



The original authorisation of a Rosary confraternity in the parish church of Mqabba is dated 29th February 1596 but the Father Ge­neral of the Dominican Order reissued another one on the 9th August 1628.38 But this confraternity had already been functioning before. This is clearly testified by the records of the 1600 Pastoral Visit.39



The usual authorisation for the establishment of the confraternity was given to Naxxar parish church in Rome on the 16th December 1594.40 In 1628 its membership amounted to thirty four persons.41 By 1634, its altar stood on the side of the main altar while the new parish church was still being built.42 Later it was transferred to the right hand transept.43



This Rosary confraternity was duly erected here on the 2nd Sep­tember 1601, having obtained pre­viously the usual authorisation from Rome. These letters from the Head of the Dominican Order were issued on the 15th July of that same year.44 In 1634 fifty 'confrati' had already been enrolled.45 Its al-[p.143]-tar in 1653 had been allocated one of the transepts which had just been added to the parish church.46



Qrendi was erected a parish on the 18th February 1616.47 Although it has been impossible so far to find when the Rosary confraternity was established, in 1630 it was already functioning on its own altar.48 Later it was given the right hand transept within the parish church.49



In 1600 a Rosary altar was already present at Safi's parish church although the confraternity had not yet been founded.50 On the 5th January 1601 the authorisation for its canonical erection was given.51 The Bailiff of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Fra Girolamo Monteleon paid the expenses involved in the painting of the altar piece.52



This confraternity was originally founded at the Porto Salvo church once the usual authorisation had been given on the 12th January 1598 by Fr Angelo Tutmiminello Dominican Father Provincial for the Sicilian kingdom.53 Its duration here lasted till 1669 when it was transferred to the parish church.54 Here it was allocated the Transfiguration altar in one of the transepts.55 In 1686 its membership amounted to two hundred persons.56



The parish priest of Siġġiewi was very eager to obtain an authorisation to have a Rosary confraternity in his own parish church. This was granted him on the 1st July 1585. Immediately afterwards a chapel, already existing in the parish cemetery dedicated to the Visitation of Our Lady, was assigned to this confraternity.57 It is quite probable that this chapel was demolished when the old parish church was enlarged with the addition of two transepts. Hence the Rosary altar was given a site in one of them.58 In 1654 its membership was still sufficiently numerous, it had no less than seventy members.59 When the building of the new baroque church was ready, the Rosary altar was placed in one of its transepts.60



Five years after it had attained a parish status, on the 20th July 1597, Tarxien was duly authorised to have its Rosary confraternity.61 When its parish church was built, as originally two side doors had been planned in its transepts, the right hand chapel near the main altar was given to this confraternity. During the 1720 new structural modifications were carried out in this church. On this occasion the Rosary altar was transferred from the above mentioned chapel to the [p.144] nearby transept since the door which stood in it had been demolished.62



The authorisation to have its own Rosary confraternity was granted to Żabbar on the 18th April 1617, just one year after the first parish priest had been in-stalled in his office.63 Its altar was already functioning in 1621.64 Grand Master Luis Mendez de Vasconcellos very probably presented its altar piece as his coat of arms were included in it.65 As usual when the building of the new parish church was reaching its completion in 1729, one of its transepts had already been assigned to this confraternity.66



The letter of the Dominican Father General regarding the confraternity's erection at Żebbuġ parish is dated 23rd February 1588. In 1594, a chapel, annexed to the old parish church, was left at their disposal.67 In the 1630s there were no less than eighty enrolled members.68 By 1653 the right hand transept in the new church, was given to this confraternity.69 Sometime about 1723 a new altar piece was provided,70 whereupon it was decided to redecorate the reredo of their chapel with sculptured decoration. This richly carved decoration was ready by 1736.71



The Dominican Father General Paolo Tarasio Mirandulanda on the 3rd April 1597 authorised Żejtun to erect a confraternity in its own parish church.72 The right hand transept added to the old parish church and completed in 1593 was dedicated to the Rosary Madonna before this authorisation had been granted. The small sculptured figure of this Madonna in the Medallion inserted in the crossing of the ceiling of this chapel points to this conclusion.73 Later, when the new baroque parish church was built, this confraternity was transferred thither, though the old Rosary altar remained at St Gregory's church even after 1709.74

It is interesting to note that this confraternity, during the second half of the 18th century, seems to have been in charge of the organisation of the Holy Week procession. In an inventory presented during the Pastoral Visit of 1759, it is stated that the said confraternity owned, among other things, six statues of the Passion.75



Sometime before 1585, Domenico Falzon had already endowed a Rosary altar in the old parish church.76 However on the 25th [p.145] November 1588 the usual confraternity authorisation was issued from Rome and the abovementioned Falzon became its first rector.77 Its altar was eventually inserted in the transept of the new parish church and was already in its place in 1654.78 The usual monthly meetings of its members were given further importance through a bequest provided by Fr Gius. Cachia. A sermon was to be delivered on each occasion. The local ecclesiastical authorities approved this donation on the 15th July 1793.79

Gio. M. Abela, The Siġġwi Rosary Madonna (1591), Cathedral Museum, Mdina


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 29 on page 142,

[1] Confer: Philip Mallia OP, "The Dominican Order and the Blessed Virgin in Malta till the end of the 18th Century" in this same publication, passim.

[2] Emilio Campana, Maria nel Culto Cattolico I, 675-680; Reginaldo G.M. Addazi OP, "Il Rosario nei Documenti Ufficiali delta Chiesa" in Alma Socia Christi- Acta ConCongressus Mariologici-Mariani Romae Anno Sancto MCML cele brati, Vol. IX, Rome 1953, 189-203; Manuel Gargia Mirales OP, "El Culto de Maria en la Orden de Predicadores (Siglos XIII-XV)" in De Cultu Mariano Saeculis XII‑XV — Acta Congresus Mariologici-Mariani Internationalis Romae anno 1975 Celebrati, Vol. III, Rome1979, 523-536.

[3] AAM, VP 1588-1602, 15v-16r.

[4] AAM, VP 1579-1608, 44r.

[5] Ibid., 166v-167r.

[6] Mikiel Fsadni OP, Id-Dumnikani fir-Rabat u fil-Birgu sa 1-1620, Malta 1974, 279-280.

[7] Ibid., 280.

[8] Confer Nos R I, III, IX, X, XII, XIV, XV, XIX, XXI, XXIV.

[9] The old Siġġiewi altar piece is still preserved at the Cathedral Museum, while those of Naxxar and Lia are exhibited in the sacristies of their respective parish churches.

[10] Many of these baroque altars have by now disappeared as an outcome, primarily, of the Neo-classic movement which influenced Maltese architecture during last century and continued to exert some influence even till the early years of this century.

[11] AAM, VP 1685-87B, 99v-100r, 317r, 529v-530r.

[12] In 1686 there were already such processional statues at Attard (Attard Parish Archives, Rosario 3, 35v); at Qormi (AAM, VP 1685-87B, 317r-v) and at Siġġiewi (Ibid., 288r). The records of the 1692-98 Pastoral Visit refer to similar statues at Cospicua (AAM, VP 1692-98, 637r-v) and at Żebbuġ (Ibid., 324), while similar documentation, covering 1699-1700, points out the existence of such statues in the following parishes: Birkirkara (AAM, VP 1699-1700 ab Alia, 496v), Lia (Ibid., 290v), Luqa (Ibid., 55v), Naxxar (Ibid., 343v-344r), Senglea (Ibid., 496v) and Żabbar (Ibid., 140r).

[13] Vinc. Borg, Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta' Ħal Lija, 32-36.

[14] AAM, Suppliche 6 (1741-61 I), 647r-v; VP 1758-60 II, 341r.

[15] AAM, VP 1685-87B, 416r.

[16] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 413r-v; VP 1771-74/77, 445r; Suppliche 9 (1762-76 II), 1107v-1110r.

[17] Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 293.

[18] AAM, VP 1728-29, 554v.

[19] Grazia Azupard provided this be-quest as detailed in the records of Notary Gio. Filippo Tonna on the 26th October 1728 (AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 452r-v).

[20] At Lia in 1766 (AAM, Suppliche 8 (1762-76 I), 388r-v), at Cospicua in 1768 (Ibid., 559r-560r), at Mqabba in 1770 (Ibid., 1026v-1027r), at Floriana in the Domus Charitatis in 1780 (AAM, Suppliche 10 (1776-85), 302v-304r), at Saura Hospital, Rabat, in 1795 (Ibid., 474r-478r) and at Luqa during the same year (AAM, Suppliche 12 (1786-1808 II), 464r-465v.

[21] AAM, Suppliche 8 (1762-76 I), 586r-598v.

[22] This form of worship meant to commemorate the nine months preceding Christ's birth and had a widespread diffusion in Europe, particularly in Germany and Poland. High Mass was sung early on each morning in honour of the Blessed Virgin, while the evening service included the singing of the Litany and the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The Sacred Congregation of Rites, on the 18th September 1685, authorised the celebration of the said mass throughout the whole 'Novena' including the feast of St Thomas and the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

[23] AAM, Suppliche 6 (1741-51 I), 8v-9v.

[24] AAM, VP 1685-87B, 288v,

[25] AAM, Suppliche 6 (1741-61 I), 9r-v.

1 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 230r-v.

2 AAM, VP 1615-16, 222v-223r.

3 AAM, VP 1634, 133r; VP 1635-37B, 174r.

4 AAM, VP 1656-59, 148r; Dun Gwann Dimech, "II-Knisja Parrokkjali - Tar-Rużarju" in Ħal Balzan 43 (1798), 2/4.

5 AAM, VP 1662-63, 225r.

6 AAM, VP 1699-1700 ab Alia, 253v.

7 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 359r.

8 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 281.

9 This year is inserted in the decoration of this altar.

10 AAM. VP 1744-51, 641r-v.

11 AAM, VP 1615-16, 312v.

12 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 288.

13 Confer Nos As. 79, Pur. 2.

14 AAM, VP 1621-31, 274v-275r.

15 AAM, Suppliche 1 (1684-1706), 240v-242r.

16 AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 69v.

17 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 359v.

18 AAM, VP 1634, 180v; VP 1635-37B, 166v-167r.

19 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 43v-44r.

20 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 279-280.

21 AAM, VP 1722-23, 536r.

22 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 89r.

23 AAM, VP 1728-29, 539v; VP 1744-51, 397v.

24 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 446r. Peter Scicluna paid one hundred and fifteen scudi for its new altar piece.

25 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 282-283.

26 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 321r.

27 AAM, VP 1728-29, 747v; Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 288.

28 AAM, VP 1618, 19r.

29 Vinc. Borg, Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta' Ħal Lija, 32-36.

30 Dun Gius. Micallef, Ħal Luqa, Niesha u Grajjietha, 81.

31 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 95v-96v.

32 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 282.

33 This altar was erected few years before 1668 (AAM, VP 1667-68, 757v).

34 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 289.

35 AAM, VP 1615-16, 257v.

36 AAM, VP 1618, 166r.

37 AAM, VP 1634, 138r; VP 1644-46, 69v.

38 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 284.

39 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 324v-325r.

40 Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 282.

41 AAM, VP 1621-31, 315v-316r.

42 AAM, VP 1634, 153v.

43 AAM, VP 1653-54, 125v-126r.

44 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 550v.

45 AAM, VP 1634, 43r.

46 AAM, VP 1653-54, 177v.

47 AAM, VP 1618, 105r-v.

48 AAM, VP 1621-31, 434v.

49 AAM, VP 1744-51, 370v-371r; 1751-56, 356v-357r.

50 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 329v.

51 Mikiel Fsadni OF, op. cit., 287.

52 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 413v-414r.

53 AAM, VP 1615-16, 325v-326r.

54 AAM. VP 1588-1602, 403r-v.

55 AAM, VP 1671-74, 23r-v; Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 285.

56 AAM, VP 1685-87B, 99v-100r.

57 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 12v.

58 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 395v-396r.

59 AAM, VP 1653-54. 127r.

60 AAM, VP 1685-87B, 288v.

61 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 512r.

62 Vinc. Borg, Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta' Ħal Tarxien, 43-45.

63 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 495r-v.

64 AAM, VP 1621-31, 113v.

65 AAM, VP 1635-37B, 73r-v.

66 AAM, VP 1728-29, 584r.

67 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 166v-167r.

68 AAM, VP 1634, 85v-86r; VP 1644-46, 217v-218r.

69 AAM, VP 1653-54, 197r-v.

70 AAM, VP 1722-23, 351r. This work was authorised on the 5th July1722 (AAM, Suppliche 4 (1714-41 I), 85v-86r).

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

72 AAM, VP 1728-29, 557r.

73 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 274r.

74 AAM. VP 1708-10, 372v; VP 1758-60 II, 475v-476r.

75 "Sei bare della Passione" as well as "una bara del Rosario" (Ibid., 473r).

76 AAM, VP 1579-1608, 24r-v.

77 AAM, VP 1588-1602, 56r-v; Mikiel Fsadni OP, op. cit., 280.

78 AAM, VP 1653-54, 323r.

79 AAM, Supplihe 10 (1776-1785), 397r-398r.