Holy Thursday Tradition: An itinerary of seven stops in one Cathedral

“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.

The facade of Mdina's Metropolitan Cathedral
The facade of Mdina's Metropolitan Cathedral

1ST STOP Francesco Zahra, Caritas, Aula Capitulare (Chapter Hall), Mdina Cathedral

The spectacular artwork on the ceiling of the Mdina Chapter Hall
The painting in the Chapter Hall

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).