Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 7(1979)4(378-379)
SERAPHIM M. ZARB - MARIO BUHAGIAR, St. Catherine of Alexandria: Her Churches, Paintings and Statues in the Maltese Islands, edited by Mario Buhagiar for St. Catherine Musical Society (Zurrieq) and Zejtun Parish Council (Malta, 1979), pp. xiii + 244; 30 plates.
For those interested primarily in Maltese history the first part of this book which is the work of a distinguished theologian, the late Fr. Seraphim Zarb OP, is of little direct interest, though it serves as an introduction to the main section concerning the Maltese cult of St. Catherine of Alexandria. If one measures popularity by the number of church dedications, this saint out-stripped St. Paul in 1575 when Catherine took third place after Mary and Nicholas, but her earlier history in Malta is largely obscured by the insuperable lack of documents. For the later period the author surveys St. Catherine's presence in churches, paintings and sculptures, accumulating detail from the extensive local literature and archives. The many interesting insights and incidental observations include the cautious attribution of a Madonna at Zejtun to one of the workshops of the followers of Antonello da Messina. In certain places the context seems rather narrow and some passages will require revision, as the author himself foresaw; for example, pp. 89-90 must now be recast in the light of the bone-count in S. Ramaswamy and J. L. Pace, "The Medieval Skeletal Remains from St. Gregory's Church at Zejtun (Malta)", Archivio Italiano di Anatomia e di Embriologia, Ixxxiv (1979). The absence from Maltese libraries of standard publications, on iconographical matters for example, and of comparative studies, from Sicily most obviously, is occasionally evident, but the overwhelming impression is that of a clearly presented body of art historical and other information which will be of great value to researchers in history, sociology, folklore and allied disciplines.
Fr. Zarb protested aginst St. Catherine's demotion following Vatican Council II, while Mario Buhagiar sticks closely to the visual and documentary record, speculating only occasionally on his saint's Maltese fortuna. Very few ex-voto paintings depicted St. Catherine, but Buhagiar's analysis of street names in 1958 shows that, the Virgin apart, Catherine was still the most popular female saint, as a study of the early baptismal and other parish records would probably confirm. Why Catherine fell behind John and four other male saints; whether she was more popular among men or women; [p.379] how far she was ousted by a propaganda machine which deliberately generated a "Maltese" Pauline cult against a "Hospitaller" Catherine; and how the study of a particular cult can contribute to the understanding of that intense religiosity which has permeated so much of Malta's history - such questions await solutions.