[p.349]

Fr Luigi da Valletta OFM Cap, (1680-1753), The Immaculate Conception, (water colour on parchment), Capuchin Friary, Floriana

Photo: Carmel H. Psaila

[p.350] Francis Azzopardi

THE VENERATION OF .THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY IN THE FRANCISCAN CAPUCHIN CHURCHES

DURING THE XVII AND THE XVIII CENTURIES*

The Franciscan Capuchin Friars were introduced in Malta in 1588 through the generous efforts of Grand Master Hughes Cardinal Loubenx de Verdalle (+1595).

Grand Master de Verdalle visited Rome on the 8 December 1587 where, having justified his conduct vis-Ó-vis the Order of St John, Pope Sixtus V elevated him to the rank of Cardinal. He returned to Malta on the 10 February 1588.[1]

Soon after his return the Grand Master started the foundation of the first house for the Capuchins outside the walls of Valletta[2] on the site called "Id-Dokkara", today surrounded by the fortifications of Floriana.[3]

As true sons of St Francis and heirs of Franciscan devotions, the Capuchins have always had a great love for Mary, the Mother of God. Proof of this is the fact that, not content with having been entrusted and consecrated to Mary by Francis and Bonaventure, they propagated Her cult under various titles in their churches.

FLORIANA

The first Capuchin church in Malta at Floriana was dedicated to the Holy Cross, having two chapels on the left side: the first one in honour of the Blessed Virgin (delle Grazie) and the second in honour of St Francis.

Special devotion to the Virgin Mary under the title "Madonna della LibertÓ" dates back to 1597.[4]

It is believed that in 1597 (?) some Maltese galley slaves contrived to escape from Constantinople, with one of the Turkish galleys. They had car-[p.351]-ried off an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which served as a banner and under its miraculous protection they eluded the pursuit of the galleys sent to recapture them and landed safely at St Paul's Bay.[5]

In compliance with their vow they carried the Sacred Image in procession to the Capuchin church at Floriana, where it was left, for the

Unknown late 16th Century artist, The 'Madonna della LibertÓ', Capuchin Church, Floriana

[p.352] veneration of the faithful, in the above mentioned chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie. Since then this chapel was called "Della Madonna della LibertÓ".

The Grand Bailiff of Brandemburg, Wolfgang Philip Von Guttenburg, Knight of the Order of St John, reconstructed and embellished this chapel in 1733. As a sign of his great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he bequeathed a sum of money for the completion of his chapel.[6]

Unfortunately this chapel was destroyed when the church was bombed during the last war on the 4 April 1942. The image of Mary holding the Infant Jesus in her arms survived and it still serves as the titular of the first altar on the left side of the church which was built after the war.

The votive ornaments which formerly covered this image have since been removed and the painting restored. It is evidently a Byzantine picture of great antiquity and of the best school.[7]

Another image of the Blessed Virgin, that of our Lady of Einsiedeln, was also venerated in the old church at Floriana. It was for some time the altar-piece of the first altar on the right side. This picture was brought from Germany in the year 1680 by Jacob Duding, a Chaplain of the Langue of Germany of the Order of St John. Its feast used to be celebrated each year with great pomp on the 8 December.[8] In 1771 the painting was removed and placed in the chapel of the Friary's Infirmary.[9] The altar was thereafter dedicated to our Lady of Sorrows. But after the war it became the altar of St Anthony. The image, however of Einsiedeln, is found today in the Museum adjoining the church at Floriana.

The devotion to the Blessed Virgin was further enhanced when in 1748 a third chapel was added to the Floriana church on the left side. It was dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto. In effect it replaced a smaller and an earlier one built by Grand Master De Verdalle in honour of St Anne.[10] But it was Grand Master E. Pinto who approved the Friars' project granting them the required land for the construction of the Loreto Chapel on the 13 February 1748.[11]

This chapel was razed to the ground as well during the war. Today on its site stands a new altar in honour of Mary Immaculate.

KALKARA

In 1736 a new Capuchin. Church was founded outside the walls of Victoriosa on a site called "Tal-Aasli", which today forms part of Kalkara.[12]

It is well known that the devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary has always been cultivated in a particular manner in the Franciscan Family. In order that special honour be given to the Virgin conceived without sin, the first altar on the left side of the new church at Kalkara was dedicated to Her. The altar-piece, a very fine painting, was donated by Do-[p.353]-menico Xara in 1744.[13] At present the same altar is consecrated to the Ma-donna, Mother of Divine Providence, But the old picture of the Immaculate Conception cannot be traced.

Another chapel, the second on the right side of the same church, is dedicated to our Lady of Sorrows. It was the great love and devotion of Mathew Cutajar from Cospicua to the Blessed Virgin which prompted him to bring from Malaga (Spain) the statue of "Madonna della Solidad". The donation of this fine Madonna is recorded in a deed drawn by P.A. Madiona on the 14 November 1767.[14]

As the devotion of our Lady of Sorrows was spreading rapidly, it was considered befitting to consecrate Her altar. This ceremony was in fact performed by Bishop V. Labinion the 10 January 1790. The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows used to be held annually with great solemnity in the month of September.

Pope Pius VII on the 8 August 1794 granted a Plenary Indulgence to the faithful who visited the Chapel on the feastday. The same Pontiff, a few months later, in January 1795, conceded to the chapel a Privileged altar and assented to the Friars' petition to invest the devotees with the "Scapolare dei Dolori".[15]

Inspired by the love with which St Francis had venerated the Mother of God, the Friars constructed, on the left side of the Kalkara church, a third chapel in honour of Our Lady of Loreto. It turned out to be a replica of the "Santa Casa". A statue of the "Madonna Lauretana" was brought purposely from Italy and carried in a solemn procession to the new abode on the 20 September 1743.[16]

GOZO

Besides the chapels and altars mentioned above dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in their churches in Malta, the Capuchins were des-tined to be the chosen guardians of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces, in the sister Island of Gozo.

During the Pastoral Visitation of Gozo in 1736, Mgr Paul Alpheran de Bussan, Bishop of Malta, decided to give to the Capuchins the old chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, situated in the area called "Forn il-Ġir" on the outskirts of Rabat. Notary A. Vivier recorded this donation by a deed dated 25 November 1736.[17]

Subsequently, the old and small chapel was demolished and a new church in honour of Our Lady of Graces was built. It was consecrated by Bishop Alpheran himself on the 5 October 1755.

The faithful, however, venerated the Blessed Virgin under the title of Mother of Graces in the former chapel, quite a long time before the arrival of the Capuchins.

[p.354]

Stefano Erardi, Our Lady of Graces, Capuchin Church, Rabat, Gozo

[p.355] Between the 9 and the 11 January 1693 the Maltese Islands were hit by a terrible earthquake. Notwithstanding the heavy damages caused to houses and churches, the population was spared. This deliverance was attributed to the intercession of the Holy Virgin of 'Forn il-Ġir'.[18]

Since then the Chapter of the Matrice, Clergy, Senate and the People of Gozo pledged themselves by a public deed, dated 15 May 1693, drawn by J.B. Dorbes, to hold an annual procession from the Matrice to the chapel of our Lady with the relic of St Ursola, Patroness of Gozo. Later the Canons of the Matrice promised to give an annual donation of ten scudi to the said chapel.[19] This donation is still being honoured.

The annual procession which was held in January, survived till the year 1968 when the Ecclesiastical authorities of the Gozo Diocese considered it appropriate to revoke all votive processions.[20]

An old painting, now preserved in the Friary, shows the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus in her arms, while beneath, a procession moves towards the Citadel.

The present altar-piece, attributed to Stefano Erardi, depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus by her side. Here again, the votive procession appears 'moving gradually towards the sanctuary.

In consideration of the constant devotion which the people of Gozo had rendered through the ages to our Lady of Graces, His Lordship Mgr J. Pace, Bishop of Gozo, solemnly crowned the heads of Mary and Jesus on the 27 January 1952, after having been requested by the Minister Provincial of the Capuchins, Fr Anthony Mary Dimech from Gozo. The Chapter of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, who is responsible of the Solemn Coronations of the Holy Images, granted the necessary decree on the 10 August 1951.[21]

The gold crown of our Lady, used on this occasion, was stolen on the 5 May 1974. Fortunately, it was recovered two days later[22] and again placed on the Head of Mary by His Lordship Mgr N. Cauchi, Bishop of Gozo, on the 22 September 1974.[23]

A second burglary was committed during the night between the 8 and 9 July 1981. The two gold crowns have not been found as yet. This theft was strongly condemned a few days later by Bishop Cauchi in a Homily delivered on the 14 July 1981. He denounced this action as "a very grave offence to the devotion of our Lady".[24]

In order to avoid further thefts the Holy images of 'Mary and Jesus were crowned again with two fibre glass crowns on the 9 July 1982.

The reaction of the faithful to these sacrilegious thefts brought the devotion to Our Lady of Graces to new heights. In fact the Sanctuary is daily visited by devotees putting their trust in Mary, Mother of Divine Graces.

[p.356] WRITERS

Among the Maltese Franciscan Capuchin writers, who distinguished themselves for their devotion to the Blessed Virgin, we can single out:

P. PELAGIO MARIA MIFSUD DA ZEBBUG (Malta) (1708-1781) who published in Rome, under his baptismal name Bartolomeo two pamphlets, namely Affetti a Maria Addolorata, Roma 1731 in 4░ and La corona dei Sette Dolori di Maria Vergine. Roma, 1725 in 12░.[25]

P. RAFFAELE DA VALLETTA (1734-1787), who wrote a Poem in honour of Mary Le Glorie di Maria.[26]

P. LUIGI BARTOLO DA VALLETTA (1680-1753).[27] This Friar seems to have been highly gifted by nature as to produce outstanding works of artistic value. The small water colour or parchment of the Virgin Immaculate (35 x 24 cm), painted in 1721 or 1723, at present preserved at the Capuchin Friary, Floriana, is the only existing example in Malta. It is a work of distinct spirituality that almost evokes Fra. Angelico. As in all good devotional art, P. Luigi has laboured to transform sensory beauty into an apt vehicle for contemplation of the Divine. Significant is the inscription under the feet of Mary, which reads: "Qui elucidant me, vitam aeternam habebunt" (Ecc. 24, 31 "Whoever acts as I dictate will never sin").

P. Luigi painted many more pictures of the Blessed Virgin for various Capuchin Friaries in Sicily and in Malta But the great charm and considerable sophistication of this painting seem to give P. Luigi a relevant place in the development of Maltese 18th century art.


* Particular Abbreviations
HRG: Bartolomeo Dal Pozzo, Historia della S. Religione Militare di S. Giovanni Gerosolimitano di Malta, Vol. I, Verona 1703.
Mal. Ill.: G.F. Abela-G.A. Ciantar, Malta Illustrata. . ., vols. III-IV, Malta 1780.
Bull. Cap.: Bullarium Capuccinorum, Vol. III, Rome 1745.
Cam. Cas.: Camillo Cassar (Rev.) Ms on the Capuchin Church in Gozo. This Ms. was kept in the Capuchin Friary in Gozo. Today it cannot be traced. We are quoting it as published in Is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Grazzja f'Għawdex fl-okkazjoni ta' l-Inkoronazzjoni Solenni tal-Kwadru Titulari. Malta 1952, no pagination.
Lettera: F. Agius De Soldanis, Lettera sopra la fondazione ed Esistenza della Chiesa e Convento dei RR. PP. Cappuccini del Gozo di Malta, Malta, 1759.
Arch.: Mss. of the Archives of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in the National Library of Malta.
Cron.: P. Pelagio M. da Żebbuġ, Cronaca de'RR. PP. Minori Capuccini di Malta. Ms. in Capuchin Province Archives, Floriana, Malta.
Camp.: Campione per la Custodia dei Cappuccini di Malta. Ms. in Cap. Prov. Arc. Floriana, Malta.
Fram.: Frammento Storico della fabbrica della chiesa di S. Liberata dei Min. Capp. Ms. in Cap. Prov. Arch. Flor. Malta.
TOM: Times of Malta.

[1] HRG, 299-304.

[2] Ibid., 364.

[3] Mal. Ill., III, 324.

[4] Cron., p. 26; Mal. Ill., III, 325. See also a marble slab in the Capuchin Province Museum, Floriana.

[5] Most probably this episode is theá some one recorded by Bartolomeo dal Pozzo, in HRG, 320-321 in a somewhat different version which occurred in 1590.

[6] Arch 931, ff. 10-15. Will dated 2 December 1733; Cron., p. 271. Pope Pius VI granted the Indulgences of a Privileged Altar on the 3 December 1779. See document in Cap. Prov. Archives, Floriana.

[7] Athenaeum, 12 May 1838 in Malta Gov. Gazette, 6 July 1838, 231.

[8] Cron., p. 112.

[9] Camp., p. 75.

[10] Cron., p. 75; Mal. Ill., III, 326.

[11] Arc. 1020, ff. 163-165; Cron., p. 25.

[12] Bull. Cap., III, 300-304; Mal. Ill., III, 326-328. Joseph Abela from Tarxien donated the lands where the church stands today. It was dedicated to St Barbara in memory of his mother.

[13] Cron., p. 441; Fram., p.n.n.

[14] Fram., p.n.n.

[15] Fram., p.n.n. This Chapel still in use --- has two paintings recording the Passion of Christ by Francesco Zahra. The big Crucifix, which was also donated by Matthew Cutajar, has been removed and placed on the main altar. Quite strangely, a statue of St Jude was placed instead.

[16] Cron., p. 445; Fram., p.n.n.; Mal. Ill., III, 327. This chapel contains the relics of St Liberata.

[17] Bull. Cap., III, 304-306; Mal. Ill., III, 328-329; Lettera, 7; Cam. Cas., in Is-Santwarju, p.n.n.

[18] Lettera, p. 8; Cam. Cas., in Is-Santwarju, p.n.n.

[19] Cam. Cas., in Is-Santwarju, p.n.n. See deed by Salvatore Cordina dated 15 January 1740 in Cap. Prov. Archives, Floriana; Lettera 8-9.

[20] Circular Letter of Bishop N. Cauchi of Gozo No 14/68, Feb-March 1968, par. 5 (b).

[21] Circular Letter of Bishop J. Pace of Gozo No 68 dated 6 Jan. 1952; Is-Santwarju . p.n.n.; TOM, 31 January 1952, 7; Il-Berqa, 31 ta' Jannar 1942, 7. It is very sad to note here that in view of the fixing of the gold crown on the head of the Madonna, the original depicted one has been painted over.

[22] TOM. 8 Mav 1974, 9; 9 May 1974, 2 and 26 July 1974, 2.

[23] Il-Ħajja, 23 Settembru 1974, 3.

[24] TOM, 26 July 1981, 12.

[25] Narbone Alessio SJ, Bibliografia Sicula Sistematica, Vol. III, Palermo 1854, 403.

[26] Fiteni Leopoldo, Giornale Cattolico (Secondo Semestre), Malta 1841, 356.

[27] Barnardus A. Bononia, Biblioteca Scriptorum Capuccinorum, Venice, 1747, 5.