Holy Thursday Tradition: An itinerary of seven stops in one Cathedral
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” writes Gustav Mahler. We are now entering into arguably one of the most traditional of religious Christian celebrations: Holy Week. However, with our movements restricted more than ever due to the pandemic, finding alternative routes to join and experience some of the traditional activities and services of the period is not an easy task. The so-called “seven churches visitation” is a long-standing tradition wherein on the evening of Maundy Thursday, Christians all over the Maltese islands take on a meditative journey of seven stops or churches. It is an Italian religious tradition reaching back to the mid-16th century when it was set up as a sobering response to the riotous and brusque behaviour of Carnival; literally, as a way of reorienting the faithful back to contemplating the “true” celebration of life over death. Be it as it may, such celebrations could not be held this year (or the last) as per tradition. Yet, traditions - even when the subject is essentially about death - do indeed die hard, and creativity kicks in. Since most churches will be shut during the period, we here propose a seven-stop itinerary that can be carried out (virtually) through some of the works of art located at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mdina.
1ST STOP Francesco Zahra, Caritas, Aula Capitulare (Chapter Hall), Mdina Cathedral
In the Mdina Chapter Hall, the Aula Capitulare—the central room for the governance of the diocese—we find a spectacular scene showing The Apotheosis of St Paul, executed in the middle of the eighteenth century by Maltese artist Francesco Zahra (1710–1773). The decorative scheme consists of a large central depiction of St Paul entering heaven, framed all around by a fictive architecture with allegories of the seven virtues: the four cardinal virtues of Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and Prudence; and the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity; and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Council, Understanding, Wisdom, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of God, and once again, Fortitude).
It is precisely Charity—caritas—the principle theological virtue and from which the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit flow that is given the most prominent position among all allegories. Indeed, it recalls St Paul’s crucial teaching that of the three theological virtues—Faith, Hope and Love (caritas in Latin, or agape, in Greek), “love is the greatest” (1 Cor: 13). After all, it summarises the nature of God (1 John 4: 8), the entire Christian life and the two commandments of Christ: love for the Father and love for the neighbour. “If you see charity, you see the Trinity,” writes St Augustine. Here, the figure of Charity is nursing one of three babies; it is a self-giving act that comes out of the desire to give the best for the beloved. But this generosity and love for humankind is the very grace and love of God (amor dei), the Holy Spirit who unites Father and Son in ever-flowing love. Indeed, the flame on Charity’s head possibly symbolises the Holy Spirit, the symbol of the loving relation between Father and Son; it is this “fire”, this “burning love” which is transformed into that self-giving love for the neighbour (amor proximi).
Francesco Zahra, Supper at Emmaus, Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
In this lunette of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the Mdina Cathedral, we see the moment the two pilgrims of Emmaus recognise Christ as he breaks the bread: “their eyes were opened” (Luke 24: 31) ... “and they said to each other, ‘were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?’”(Luke 24: 32). Confused and disappointed by what had happened in Jerusalem, by the death of Christ—the man who they believed and hoped would save Israel—they took the road towards Emmaus. It is in their desperation, along that road, that Christ spoke truths to them that caused their hearts to burn.
Heat, which as we have seen is associated with divine love—to caritas, is also connected to their destination; Emmaus means “hot springs”. The water basin in the lower left part of the lunette may be an indication to the presence of water, identified not only with the Holy Spirit in Johannine theology but also with rites of purification, of being clean. In other words, with truth. Furthermore, in the context of a supper, the cloth above the basin reminds us of Christ washing the feet of the disciples (John 13: 1-17) in an act of service where “he loved them to the end” (John 13: 1).
Francesco Grandi, Descent of the Holy Spirit, north aisle of the Mdina Cathedral
Painted for the Chapel of Pentecost by Francesco Grandi (1831–1891) in the late nineteenth century, this altarpiece shows us the moment the Holy Spirit descends on the Virgin, Apostles and disciples of Christ in the form of tongues of fire, as described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2: 1-4).
We see here men and women, young and old, all unified through God’s divine love, as we find in the epistles of St Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3: 28). Indeed, it is the beginning of a community, of the early Christian Church and its mission to go out in the world filled with the Spirit. It is perhaps not a coincidence, therefore, that the architectural setting resembles the interior of a basilica or temple, with the scroll of learning and a vessel with water or wine on the ground...
Francesco Zahra, Institution of the Eucharist, Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament