[p.216] I - ANALYSIS OF THE PREVAILING SITUATION

The beginning of the seventeenth century is characterized by a process of general recovery. Gozo was slowly emerging from a depression that had devastated place and people for the previous 'fifty years. Around 1550, the population of Gozo stood around 6000;[1] however during July 1551, the island suffered its greatest siege in history at the hands of the Turks. The majority were carried into slavery and only a handful of people remained on the island. Other Turkish raids occurred during 1560, 1563, 1572, 1574, 1582, 1598 and 1599. The population growth was hence very slow and by the turn of the century it had rose to slightly over 2000.[2] About nineteen priests looked after their spiritual needs.[3]

The majority of the people lived in the medieval capital of Gozo - the Castello - and around it, in the slowly developing suburb of Rabat. The remainder lived in a wide scatter of settlements that dotted the island.

[p.217] By the middle of the seventeenth century, several of these settlements began to gather a certain consistency and villages started to develop. In 1678, the village of Xewkija became a separate parochial unit and Gharb followed suit the following year. Sannat, Xagħra, ,Nadur and Żebbuġ attained a similar status in 1688.

A the beginning of the eighteenth century the population had more than doubled to 5,096[4] and the rise continued steadily during the whole century to reach just about 13,000 by 1800.[5] The population growth continued in the seven mentioned units: no other parishes were established before 1800. The number of priests had by the time rose to about 133, of which 11 were friars of the three mendicant orders working in Gozo: the Augustinians, the Franciscan Conventuals and the Capuchins.[6]

THE MARIAN CHURCHES AND CHAPELS

During the two hundred years under consideration, there were forty-eight different churches and chapels dedicated to Our Lady. The full list, reproduced in Appendix 1,[7] has been arrived at after a strenuous scrutiny of the majority of the pastoral visits carried out in Gozo between 1598 and 1797 - some thirty-five in all.[8] Their order is determined by their first mention in these visits: this, however, does not necessarily reflect their antiquity. One or two churches are in fact mentioned only on the occasion of their profanation.[9] This list updates and perfects the one drawn by De Soldanis in 1746[10] considered the standard work on the subject for the past 240 years. A lot of checking and cross-referring has been done to avoid repeating chapels determined solely by their dedication or location, the names of which sometimes changed by the passage of time. [11] De Soldanis made at least one such repetition[12] and missed four Marian chapels. [13]

Understandingly enough, the largest number of chapels stood where the heaviest concentration of the population was - Rabat[14] Besides the matrice in the Castello, there were seven chapels in the centre of the town and another seven round about its outskirts. [15] The next larger cluster was situated to the west of Gozo where there were eight chapels.[16] Xagħra and its whereabouts - the abode of the Gozitan Neolithics - had five chapels dedicated to Our Lady.[17] Another five stood just beneath this area around the tiny fishing port of Marsalforn and in the valley leading to it.[18]

[p.218] Four other chapels were situated at Wied il-Għasri,[19] where there must have been a flourishing community at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The remaining chapels were scattered throughout the island: in a clockwise direction from the north, there was one at Żebbug, two at Qala, two close to Xewkija, one at Sannat, another close to Xlendi and another three in the south western parts of the island.[20] Another marian chapel was situated on the island of Comino.[21] Only the north eastern part of the island - the area bordering Nadur - lacked a chapel dedicated to Our Lady.

Half the parishes of Gozo were dedicated to her. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the matrice of Santa Marija and San Ġorġ were the only parishes on the island. And of the six parishes established in the last quarter of the century, Għarb, Żebbug and Xagħra honoured Our Lady as their patron.

THE EARLIEST CHAPELS

Towards the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, out of a total of thirty-five churches and chapels, fifteen or 43% were dedicated to Our Lady.[22] Ten of these[23] already figure in the 1575 list drawn by the Apostolic Visitor Pietro Dusina,[24] who visited a total of seventeen Marian chapels.[25] In conformity with the overall recovery of the island, the chapels dedicated to Our Lady increased from fifteen to nineteen by 1608.[26]

The material condition of the first fifteen chapels differed to quite an extent, but they can be roughly divided into three categories. Five were nearing the point of dilapidation.[27] Another four[28] were in a rather mediocre state - either the building was in dire need of repair or the sacred utensils and other necessities lacked. Six were however in a comparatively good condition. These included the matrice,[29] the very old chapel at tas-Saqqajja which formed part of a royal benefice,[30] another dedicated to Our Lady of the Snow situated in the middle of a cemetry,[31] a chapel at Wied il-Għasri belonging to the prosperous family de Manueli,[32] the chapel of Our Lady of Succour - from which there was direct access to San Ġorġ[33] and, lastly, the one on ta' Dbieġi.

The better condition of the first five is easily explainable by either their location or their proprietor. The last mentioned presents a different case. It was perched on ta' Dbieġi hill,[34] the highest point of the island of Gozo, 195 metres above sea level. This chapel withstood the ravages of time as it was "frequented with devotion by faithful of both sexes"[35] and this notwithstanding the steep cumbersome climb to reach it. The chapel had stood there from time immemorial; according to one tradition it was built in fulfillment of a vow by a French sea captain after he and his crew miraculously found refuge in a local harbour during a severe storm.[36]

[p.219] As already pointed out the chapels dedicated to Our Lady rose to nineteen by 1608. Four of those recorded in a dilapidated or mediocre state ten years earlier[37] were no more. Several of the others had however been repaired and provided for. Eight further chapels appear in the 1608 list.[38] Two of them, tal-Virtu and ta' Gajdoru had been standing in 1575.[39] Situated one in open countryside, the other on an easily accessible beach, they must have fallen prey to marauding Turks. However, as both were centres of popular devotion, they were restored without loss of time. It does not transpire whether any of the other six was completely new. Tal-Qasam tal-Għeżien was definitely not as it was crumbling down.[40] One thing is certain: during the general recovery people began to take greater care of their chapels.

From the 1608 list, one can deduce that the most flourishing community outside the town was that of Għarb. With three quite well-kept Marian chapels,[41] it was also a community that cherished great devotion to Our Lady. So did the folk at Xagħra.[42]

Between 1601 and 1622, Malta was ruled by the French Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. A very rich man from Picardie, he spent handsomely out of his own purse and out of the Order's Treasury to finance impressive building programmes. Several churches and chapels were raised with his financial help - amongst them that of Our Lady of Graces at Forn il-Ġir, literally lime-kiln.[43] Built close to the site of two former chapels dedicated to Saint Julian and Saint Agatha, this is one of the twelve Marian chapels[44] mentioned for the first time in the pastoral visit of 1615.

Apart from the chapel of Our Lady of Graces and, maybe, that of the Annunciation at Għajn Meddew,[45] none of the others seems to have been newly built. Their absence from the 1608 list does not necessarily mean that they were not standing at the time. Some may have easily been skipped over due to difficulties to reach them; others may have been in such a derelict condition that they were not worth the visit. This is certainly the case with the chapels at Għammar, Wied Sara and Qala,[46] all of which were standing in 1575.[47] The majority, however, had been recently refurbished and restored, for one notes that half of them[48] were in an optimum condition and very well kept. Another five needed some restoration,[49] while that at Ghammar was crumbling down.[50] As a result of the overall recovery people were slightly better off and, prompted by their deep religiosity, they soon employed their little extra earnings to embellish their old chapels again.

Notwithstanding this, four of the Marian chapels standing in 1608 had vanished by 1615: the chapel at Ghajn Meddew, that at Wied Sara, another at San Dimitri and a fourth at il-Qasam ta' l-Għeżien.[51]

A chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Piety is first 'mentioned in the pas-[p. 220]-toral visit of 1618.[52] It was probably situated by the parish of San Cory to which it must have been annexed after a short time as it is never referred to again. Another chapel built around the same time was that on the island of Comino.[53]

The increase in Marian chapels is hence rather slow. Three others appear for the first time three years later during the 1621 pastoral visit.[54] The first, at tal-Qabbieża, may be the same one referred to as at tal-Qasam ta' San Pawl in the already mentioned 1575 list.[55] The second at Għajn Ħożna was in ruins[56] while the third at tal-Qasam was in a satisfactory condition.[57]

Two previously unmentioned chapels appear in the pastoral visit of 1630: another at Tal-Qabbieża[58] and one at Wied il-Mielaħ.[59] Both were in a rather ruinous condition which explains why they had gone unnoticed during previous visits. This pastoral visit enumerates the relatively high number of twenty-nine Marian chapels[60] - an unbeaten record.

THE DOWNFALL OF THE COUNTRYSIIDE CHAPELS

The great flourish of countryside chapels during the first three decades of the seventeenth century soon came to an abrupt end. Their downfall is already perceived from the 1630 pastoral visit. Pietro Francesco Pontremoli, the Vicar General who carried out this visit, ordered the closure of five Marian chapels and directed that their doors be blocked with stone.[61]

Nothwithstanding his suggestions, nothing was done to save these and other chapels from utter ruin. The majority continued to deteriorate further until a catastrophe could hardly be avoided. This struck in May 1657 during the pastoral visit of Bishop Michael Balaguer. A total of sixteen Marian chapels were judged unfit for liturgical services and profaned.[62] Unbelievably enough, a newly built chapel, mentioned for the first time in this visit and still known as "the new"[63] was one of those that suffered such fate.

It was not only the wear and tear wrought by nature that brought about this catastrophe. Neither was the death of the founders and benefactors of these chapels the only cause behind this tragedy. The real reason lies elsewhere. As already pointed out, it was about this time that the wide scatter of settlements around the island began shrinking slowly but steadily. Several disappeared altogether with the development of the first villages. The chapels situated in remote spots were eventually forgotten. The people directed their attention to the chapel closest to their settlement. This is all too clear from the same visit. All but one of the six chapels that eventually became the seats of the first parishes outside the town were in a superb condition. The Assumption chapel at Żebbuġ had been "recently rebuilt from its foundation and is pretty and rather wide".[64]

[p.221] That of the Immaculate Conception at Qala, which served as a parish for Nadur, had also been "recently restored ... and converted into a really fine edifice.[65] The same holds true for the chapels of Saint John the Baptist, Xewkija,[66] for that of :Saint Margaret, Sannat,[67] and for that of Saint Anthony Abbot, Xaghra.[68] The exception was the chapel of the Visitation at Għarb. It was one of those profaned in 1657;[69] however, after a petition by the nearby community, it was reopened in 1663.[70]

The only other chapel reopened after the profanation of 1657 was that dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.[71] It was rebuilt in 1663 but it was not destined to stand for many years. Until the end of the century only one other Marian chapel was ,built: that dedicated to the Nativity at Xagħra. Its building was necessitated by the ever-increasing community of that village. As from May 12, 1692, it became the seat of the newly-erected parish.[72] By the close of the seventeenth century, the number of Marian chapels had been reduced to nine.

During the whole eighteenth century only four other Marian churches were built: the new parish dedicated to the Visitation of Our Lady at Għarb, inaugurated in 1729;[73] the chapel of Our Lady of Light, built in 1730 on the site of two former Marian chapels next to San Ġorġ;[74] the chapel of the Patronage of Our Lady at Wied il-Għasri, built in 1739 also on the site of a former chapel,[75] and finally, around 1770, the tiny chapel of the Immaculate Conception, tat-Blat, on a high ridge over the sea.[76] At the close of the eighteenth century there were a total of fourteen Marian chapels: thirteen on Gozo and one on Comino.

A WORD ON COMINO

The island of Comino and the uninhabited islet of Cominotto are considered part of Gozo both for civil and religious purposes. Lying almost mid-way in the Gozo-Malta channel, they cover an area of 2.78 km square. The island had been deserted since the arrival of the Order but once a fort was built in 1618, a small number of farmers settled there. That same year these farmers raised a chapel dedicated to the Assumption.[77] This was not the first and only church on the island. In a twelfth century navigational map preserved at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, one can decipher the sign of a church where the farmers raised their chapel.

This chapel also suffered from the ravages of time and the salinity of the sea and it had seemingly fallen down in 1657. It was restored in 1667 and once again in 1716[78] and hence dedicated to the Return of Our Lady from Egypt.[79] The few farmers living on the island paid for the celebration of two feasts: one on January 7, another on March 19.[80]

[p.222]

Unknown 16th and 17th Centuries artists, The Polyptich, Cathedral Church, Gozo Photo: Joseph Bezzina


[1] DE SOLDANIS, op. cit., 315.

[2] For a graph of the Gozo populalation corresponding precisely to the period under consideration, cf. BRIAN BLOUET, The Story of Malta, Valletta 31981, 73.

[3] VINCENT BORG, The Diocesan Priests in the Maltese Island, 1551-1950. Some results of a demographic survey, in Bullettin ta' l-Arċidjocesi 32 (1982) 248,

[4] CEM, Status Animarum, Rabat (1707) 2v.

[5] BLOUET, op. cit., 73.

[6] AAM, VP 1801, 21r-32r, passim.

[7] For the compilation of this and other appendices, I am indebted to the cooperation of the assistant archivist at the Bishop's Curia, Gozo, Canon Louis Camilleri - to whom my sincere thanks.

[8] The reports of Pastoral Visits in Gozo are preserved at the AEG for the years 1608-1678. Those prior and post are at the AAM. A copy of the 1575 visit is pre-served at the PLG.

[9] As No 43 (NOTE all numbers refer to Appendix 1); AEG, VP 1657, 15r.

[10] DE SOLDANIS, op. cit., 681-706.

[11] Thus No 21 is referred to as tax-Xewkija, AEG, VP 1608, 13v; as tal-Ħamrija, AEG, VP 1615, 43r; and as ta' Sannat, AEG, VP 1657, 17r.

[12] No 9 repeated by DE SOLDANIS, op. cit., 565. 696 as No 34 and 94.

[13] Nos 23, 36, 38, 41.

[14] Cf Appendix 2 and the accompanying map designed by my student Joseph Borg of Victoria to whom my heartfelt thanks.

[15] Nos 1-2, 4, 10, 11, 12, 36, 46-3, 9, 16, 26, 31, 35, 43.

[16] Nos 13, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 42, 45.

[17] Nos 5, 22, 23, 39, 44.

[18] Nos 14, 15, 29, 30, 40.

[19] Nos 7, 17, 27, 47.

[20] Nos 28-33, 48-21, 34-8-32-6, 38, 41.

[21] No 37.

[22] AAM, VP 1598, 150r-170v.

[23] Nos 1-10.

[24] PLG, VA 1575, 192-203, 265-273.

[25] The others, mentioned later on, are Nos 20, 22, 25, 26, 33, 34 and probably, 38.

[26] AEG, VP 1608. lv-16r.

[27] Nos 2, 5, 12, 14, 15.

[28] Nos 6, 8, 9, 11.

[29] AAM, VP 1598, 160r.

[30] Ibid., 163v.

[31] Ibid., 160v.

[32] Ibid.. 169v; PLG, VA 1575, 273.

[33] AAM, VP 1598, 160r.

[34] Ibid., 165r.

[35] Idem.

[36] AEG, VP 1644, 11v-12r.

[37] Nos 6, 8, 12, 15.

[38] Nos 16-23.

[39] PLG, VA 1575, 273, 271.

[40] AEG, VP 1608, 16r.

[41] Ibid., 11r.

[42] Ibid., 13v.

[43] DE SOLDANIS, op. cit., 741. It must be noted that the denomination of this chapel as ta' Fomm instead of Forn il-Ġir results from a misreading of the Pastoral visits.

[44] AEG, VP 1615, 35v.

[45] Ibid., 32v.

[46] Nos 25, 26, 33.

[47] PLG, VA 1575, 270, 272, 270.

[48] Nos 28, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35; AEG, VP 1615, 29v, 32v, 35v, 38v, 40v, 44r.

[49] Nos 24, 26, 27, 29, 32; AEG, VP 1615, 20v, 27r, 28r, 31v, 36v.

[50] Ibid., 25r.

[51] Nos 14, 16, 18, 23.

[52] AEG, VP 1618, 2v.

[53] Ibid., 4v.

[54] Nos 38, 39, 40; AEG, VP 1621, 26v, 38v, 41r.

[55] PLG, VA 1575, 267.

[56] AEG, VP 1621, 38v.

[57] Ibid., 41r.

[58] AEG, VP 1630, 27v.

[59] Ibid., 34v.

[60] Their names can be deducted from Appendix 1.

[61] Nos 4, 14, 24, 29, 38; AEG, VP 1630, 23r, 45v, 28v, 37v, 28v.

[62] Nos 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 17, 20, 21, 22, 24, 32, 34, 35, 43; AEG, VP1657, 15v, 13v, 16r, 15r, 8r, 8r, 12r, 13v, 12v, 17r, 15v, 12r, 17v 16v, 17r, 15r.

[63] "Conceptionis B.V.M. la nova", Ibid., 15r.

[64] Ibid., 13v.

[65] Ibid., 17v.

[66] Ibid., 16r.

[67] Ibid., 16v.

[68] Ibid., 15r.

[69] Ibid., 12v.

[70] AEG, VP 1663, 16r.

[71] Ibid., 19r; No 43.

[72] Archivum Parrocchiale Xaghra, Lib. Baptizatorum, 1, under 1692.

[73] DE SOLDANIS, 649.

[74] Ibid., 638. The other chapels were Nos 10 and 11.

[75] Ibid., 679-680.

[76] AAM, VP 1781, 175v-176r.

[77] AEG,VP 1618, 4v.

[78] DE SOLDANIS, op cit., 103-104.

[79] AAM, VP 1760, 626r.

[80] Ibid., 626v.