Francesco Zahra 1710-1773 (attributed), Our Lady of Light with Saints, Tad-Dawl Church at tal-Bidni, Marsascala

Photo: Joseph Mifsud


The worship of Our Lady of Light passed over to 'Malta from Sicily, where it had its initial beginnings. The Jesuit Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi was the chief propagator of this devotion, during the first decades of the 18th century. Reproductions of a picture, inspired in a vision by the Blessed Virgin, formed the main source for the spreading of this Marian devotion. Our Lady is represented in a standing position with the Child Jesus on her left hand where an angel stands presenting to them a number of human hearts contained in a canister. The Virgin, with her right hand is grasping a young lad from the gaping mouth of a dragon who tries to devour him. Angels, on high, hold a crown with ten stars above (Mary's head. Fr Genovesi availed himself of this picture in his missions throughout Sicily. Copies of this painting became very popular in various parts of Sicily, as well as elsewhere, and a church in her honour had already been built at Palermo before the 1740s.[1]

From Sicily, this devotion spread even to far off lands. In 1732, it was introduced in Messico at Leon, and eventually, in 1872, the Blessed Virgin under this title, was chosen as the principal patroness of the diocese of Leon, when a bishopric was established in that city.[2]

While this devotion was having remarkable success both in Sicily as elsewhere, a fellow Maltese, Marquis Antonio Pio Depiro found serious opposition from the Bishop of Syracuse, when he tried to set up an altar in her honour in the parish church of Avola, within the jurisdiction of the said Bishop. He appealed to the Sacred Congregation of Rites. This Congregation gave its formal reply on the 27th January 1742, ordering the Bishop to proscribe throughout his diocese the spreading of this worship, even within churches which were normally exempted from his episcopal jurisdiction. Moreover, a booklet written by an unknown author entitled La Devozione della Madre Santissima del Lume had to be suspended from circulation until it had been duly examined by the Sacred Congregation of the Index.[3]

The situation in Malta was somewhat different. It does not result, so far, that the above-mentioned decree of the Congregation of Rites has had any direct repercussions on our diocese. The earliest evidence of this worship in Malta is linked with a rural church within the parochial limits of Żejtun, in the neighbourhood known as Tal-Bidni. This church, previously closed to public worship, was reopened in 1733, retaining, at first, its original titular saint, namely, St John the Baptist. However the veneration of Our Lady of Light was there and then introduced in this church, and attracted immediately popular devotion. A new church in her honour was built on the site of the previous one about 1754. Meanwhile, people from all over Malta flocked here to pay her their homage. It seems that pharmacist [p.171] Giuseppe Mallia was the principal animator of this devotion within this church.[4]

In 1736, the parish priest of Żebbuġ and some members of the clergy of the same parish, during the Pastoral Visit of that year, were authorised by Bishop Alpheran de Bussan to build a church in her honour on the site of a previous church. Incidentally this church happens to be the first church built in Malta to venerate this Marian devotion.[5]

The 1730s witnessed also the spreading of this same devotion in another six parishes, where copies of its picture were placed for public veneration.[6] The highest peak in its spreading however was reached during the following two decades, namely from 1740 till 1759. Another seventeen parishes welcomed this Marian devotion, normally, within the parish church itself.[7] The custom adopted here, to be followed later also in various other forms of worship, was to insert a copy of the picture representing Our Lady of Light as a sub-titular altar piece on a side altar. There are some instances when altars were also dedicated to her during this same period. Such altars were erected at Vittoriosa in the Oratory of St Philip Neri, originally known as St 'Mary of the Angels',[8] as well as at St James' church, in Żurrieq.[9] It is doubtful whether an order to have a similar altar erected at Tal-Ħlas church, Qormi, was ever executed.[10] At Cospicua, an attempt to build a church in her honour seems to have suffered the same fate. Though in 1746, provisions for such a project had been promised, this church was never built.[11]

The feast of this Marian devotion was, normally, held on the second Sunday of November, coinciding with the feast of Our Lady's Patronage. In 1734, the Siġġiewi parish was also authorised to hold a procession on that day.[12]

From these data it seems obvious that Bishop Alpheran de Bussan gave it his backing. Its extensive spreading in Malta took place during his term of office as head of this diocese (1728-1757). During these years, in fact, it had infiltrated almost within all the island's parishes. Senglea and Żabbar only offer an exception. But Żabbar was a stone's throw away from Tal-Bidni church mentioned above.



L 1

Antonio Bugeja and his wife Margerita planned to build a church here in honour of Our Lady of Light and endow it with an ecclesiastical living. The parish priest offered some objections, since her feast was already being celebrated in the parish church itself. Never-[p.172]-theless, Bishop Alpheran de Bussan gave his consent on the 10th of March 1746. On the 9th February of the same year, the above-mentioned benefactors had duly stipulated the deed of this foundation which was recorded by Notary Michael Angelo Saliba.1 But this plan does not seem to have ever materialised as there is no reference whatsoever to such a church in the records of all subsequent Pastoral Visits.


L 2

The parish priest and members of the clergy, during the Pastoral Visit of 1736, requested the Bishop to authorise the rebuilding of a church originally dedicated to the Nativity and commonly known as Ta' Cassis Nardu, which was closed to liturgical worship in 1658. They also presented a plan for the new church. On giving his approval, Bishop Alpheran agreed also that this new church was to be dedicated to Our Lady of Light.2 Work was immediately taken in hand and this church was blessed in 1740.3 Its feast was held on the second Sun-day of November.4 Bishop Rull granted an Indulgence of forty days for a recitation of a 'Hail Holy Queen' in this church.5


L 3

Tal-Bidni This church was built on a site previously occupied by another church dedicated to St John the Baptist which was closed to public worship in 1654.6 It was reopened by Bishop Alpheran de Bussan in 1733 on the request of Cleric Gio. Ant. Mallia and various persons.7 By 1737, a picture of Our Lady of Light placed in this church had attracted considerable devotional appeal. Various offerings attested this devotion.8 Pharmacist Giuseppe Mallia was, then, in charge of this church which was already referred to as 'Tad-Dawl'.9 By 1754, devotion towards this Marian shrine had spread all over the island. Masses were celebrated daily in this church.10 A new church was built between 1754 and 1758. Various ex-voti adorned its walls. Incidentally, pharmacist Mallia, who seems to have been the principal benefactor of this Marian devotion within this church, died when its building had just been completed.11




The feast of Our Lady of Light was introduced at Attard parish church sometime before 1752 and used to be celebrated on the Crucifix altar where its picture had been placed.12



In 1736, Bishop Alpheran de [p.173] Bussan found her picture on the altar of St Paul the Hermit.13 Its feast had been celebrated here for the first time, very probably, on the 12th November of the previous year and continued to be held on the same day throughout the 18th century.14



Sometime before 1738, a painting of this Madonna had been placed for public veneration at St Anthony's church.15 Later, in 1781, it stood on its main altar.16



The Procurators of the parish church provided for the celebration of her feast from a bequest left by Philippina Fiteni. In 1751, this feast was held on the Rosary altar whose sub-titular altar piece represented this Marian devotion.17



In 1740, there was a similar picture on the Crucifix altar within the sacristy of St Publius' church which was, then, functioning as Vice-parish church of this suburb.18 Later, in 1771, when this altar was transferred to one of the new church's transepts, the above-mentioned picture was substituted by a reproduction of the Good Counsel Madonna.19



The Nativity altar, in this parish church, was already endowed with a picture of this Marian devotion in 1736.20 Fr Domenico Grech provided a donation for the celebration of its feast as recorded by Notary Baldassare Schembri on the 8th July 1747.21



The Sodality of Priests of the five nearby villages, namely Żurrieq, Kirkop, Mqabba, Gudja and Qrendi, celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Light on the Rosary altar of this parish church from 1745 onwards.22



In 1759, the altar within the crypt under the parish church was dedicated to this Madonna23 but by 1774 it was substituted by a stone statue of Our Lady.24



A sub-titular altar piece in her honour was placed on the altar of Our Lady of Graces in the parish church about 1754.25



Rosalia Preziosi, in 1736, acquired a picture of this Madonna [p.174] for Lia's parish church. It was deemed to be too small to be placed on an altar for public veneration. However, the parish priest managed to obtain a larger one which had been painted at Modica in Sicily, which was eventually placed on St Rocque's altar.26


In 1758, there was a similar picture on St Cajetan's altar at the Nativity church, commonly known as Tal-Belliegħa.27



From 1745 onwards, there was a reproduction of this Madonna on St Michael's side altar in the parish church.28



This Marian devotion was introduced at St Rocque's church sometime about 1771.29 This church, eventually, became commonly known by this new Marian title, namely Tad-Dawl.30



In 1759, there was a picture of this Madonna on St Paul's altar in the parish church, which remained there for various years afterwards.31


Ta' l-Isperanza church, in 1781, had two such pictures. One stood on the entrance of the main door and the other was placed over a crib which was inserted under the main altar piece.32



This Marian feast was celebrated at Mqabba's parish church on the second Sunday of November, coinciding with the feast of Our Lady's Patronage. By 1745, her picture had already been placed in this church33 through popular devotion.34



Some parishioners petitioned Bishop Alpheran de Bussan to venerate this Madonna on St Agatha's altar in the parish church. He granted them this request on the 29th January 1738.35 By 1744, its prominence overshadowed the titular saint of this altar.36 However, in 1751, this same altar was assigned to the confraternity of Our Lady of Sorrows which had just then been erected. Nevertheless the feast of Our Lady of Light continued to be celebrated on this altar.37



During the Pastoral Visit of 1747, the parish priest of Qormi sought permission to erect two side altars at Tal-Ħlas church, one of which was to be dedicated to this Madonna. This request was granted him.38 However, it does not result that this altar was ever set up [p.175] afterwards, as it is never mentioned in the records of Pastoral Visits.39



Fr Gio. Paolo Axiaq bequeathed a donation for the celebration of this feast at Qrendi's parish church, as recorded in the acts of Notary Thomas Magri on the 24th January 1743.40 This feast was duly held on the Rosary altar where a picture of this Madonna had been placed.41



A similar feast was held on Sunday following the feast of St Peter and St Paul at St Sebastian's church, where a reproduction of this Madonna had been placed below the main altar piece sometime about 1758.42



In 1759, there was a side-picture near the titular altar of Sufi's parish church representing Our Lady of Light.43



On the 3rd October 1734, Bishop Alpheran de Bussan authorised the celebration of this feast at the parish church to be held on the second Sunday of November which included also a procession. A sub-titular picture had been placed on the Rosary altar where this Marian devotion flourished.44



The reproduction of this Madonna was placed on the Mount Carmel altar in the left hand transept of the parish church sometime before 1744.45



On the 10th January 1785, Bishop Labini accepted a bequest made by Gio. Batt. Bianchi which, among other things, provided for the maintenance of an oil lamp burning in front of a picture of Our Lady of Light venerated at the Damascena church.46



A newly erected altar in the church of St Mary of the Angels was dedicated to this Marian devotion sometime about 1759.47 However, in 1774 it was already rededicated to St Agatha.48



In 1774, a picture of this Madonna, which had been hanging near the main entrance of the parish church, was placed on the Nativity altar within the same church.49

[p.176] ŻURRIEQ


This feast was celebrated at the parish church through a bequest provided by Angelica Mamo before 1774.50


[p.177] A side altar at St James' church dedicated to St John the Baptist, about 1754, changed its titular to Our Lady of Light. The Baptist, as usual, was included in the new altar piece.51 Natale Mizzi bequeathed a donation for its feastday, while Fr. Giuseppe Testaferrata defrayed the expenses involved in sculpturing the reredo of this altar. Notary Gio. Francesco Farrugia recorded these deeds on the 21st April 1753.52


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] F.G. Holweck, Fasti Mariani, 340‑41; Luigi Lugaresi-Paolo Bononi, "La `Madonna del Lume' di Melara Rovigo. Genesi e storia di una storia bicentenaria" in Ravatensia VIII (Cesena 1983), 239‑256. I wish to thank Fr Edmond Lamalle SJ for kindly forwarding to me a copy of this study.

[2] Idem. Confer also Luis Cabrera Cruz, Algunas Imagine de la Madre Santissima de la Luz en Italia, Foggia 1956.

[3] Provincial Archives of the Friars Minor, Malta, Misc. A, 64r-v. This information has been provided by Fr George Aquilina OFM, to whom I extend my sincere thanks.

[4] Confer No L 3.

[5] Confer No L 2.

[6] Confer Nos L II, III, VI, X, XVII, XXII.


[8] Confer No L XXV.

[9] Confer No L XXVIII.

[10] Confer No L XIX.

[11] Confer No L 1.

[12] AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 300v.

1 AAM, Suppliche 6 (1741-61 I), 240r-v.

2 AAM, VP 1736-40, pp. 434-435.

3 AAM, VP 1751-56, 603r-v.

4 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 538r-v; VP1771-74/77, 439r-v.

5 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 584r.

6 AAM, VP 1728-29, 553v; VP 1758-60II 477v-478r

7 AAM. Suppliche 5 (1714-41 II) 640r- 641r. Bishop Alpheran authorised its reopening on the 25th April 1733.

8 AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 762.

9 AAM, VP 1744-51, 534r-v.

10 AAM, VP 1751-56, 413rv.

11 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 477v-478r; VP 1771-74/77, 469r.

12 AAM, VP 1751-56, 231v; VP 1771‑74/77, 268v; VP 1781, 304v,

13 AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 330.

14 Dun Owann Dimech, "Il-Knisja Parrokkjali (24): San Pawl l-Eremita in Ħal Balzan, No 36 (1977),

15 AAM, Suppliche 5 (1714-41 II), 802v-803r.

16 AAM, VP 1781, 260r.

17 AAM, VP 1751-56, 833v; VP 1758-60 II, 75r. On the 26th April 1766, an Indulgence of forty days was granted for the recitation of a 'Hail Holy Queen' in front of this picture (AAM, Suppliche 8 (1762‑76 I), 392r).

18 AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 1811.

19 AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 181r.

20 AAM, VP 1736-40, p. 237.

21 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 254r.

22 AAM, VP 1744-51, 382v.

23 Ibid., 446v-447r.

24 AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 474r.

25 AAM, VP 1751-56, 300r.

26 Vinc. Borg, Il-Knisja Parrokkjali ta' Ħal Lija, Malta 1982, 51-52.

27 AAM, VP 1758-60 I, 565r-566r.

28 AAM, VP 1744-51, 335r.

29 AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 13r-v.

30 Achille Ferres, Descrizione Storica, 94.

31 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 260v; VP 1771‑74/77, 152r-v; VP 1781, 232v.

32 AAM, VP 1781, 237r-v.

33 AAM, VP 1744-51, 352r.

34 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 353r.

35 AAM, Suppliche 5 (1714-41 II 903r.

36 AAM, VP 1744-51, 104r-v.

37 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 219v-220r.

38 AAM, VP 1744-51, 584r.

39 AAM, VP 1751-56, 386r-v; VP 1771‑74/77, 397r; VP 1781, 578v-579r.

40 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 371v-372r; VP1744-51, 371r-372r.

41 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 371v-372r.

42 AAM, VP VP 1758-60 I, 406v-407r.

43 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 413r; VP 1771‑74/77, 670v.

44 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 305r-v; VP 1771-74/77, 601v-602r.

45 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 513v-514r; VP1771-74/77, 486v; VP 1781, 551v.

46 AAM, Suppliche 10 (1776-85), 701v‑703v.

47 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 65v.

48 AAM, VP 1771-74/77, 264v-265r.

49 Ibid., 435r-v.

50 Ibid., 664r.

51 AAM, VP 1751-56, 332r-v.

52 AAM, VP 1758-60 II, 380r-v.