“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
In this second lunette in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament at the Mdina Cathedral, we see Christ offering a piece of consecrated bread—his own body—to St Peter. The “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” are clearly visible, recalling the moment that Peter was chosen by Christ as the rock on which his church will be built (Mt 16: 18). In this painting, the institution of the Eucharist recalls the institution of the Church. That is, the memory of the sacrifice of Christ, the memory of his self-giving love, is precisely what reveals the nature of the Church. Peter, who is the rock of this Church, “eats” the body of Christ for spiritual sustenance, in the same way that the body cannot survive without physical nourishment. As this painting seems to suggest, there can be no unified Church if it is not nourished by Christ.
Mattia Preti, The Conversion of St Paul, altarpiece of the Mdina Cathedral
In the choice of Christ is the power of transformation and conversion: servants become friends; lesser become equals; the blind, see; the barren become fruitful; persecutors become disciples. In this late seventeenth-century work by Mattia Preti (1613–1699), the titular altarpiece of the Mdina Cathedral, we see a representation of the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus, in all senses: once raised higher above all the rest, he is now on his back beneath everyone else; once armed, his sword lies discarded on the ground; and once seeing, he is now blind. It is as if all those things that were preventing him to encounter Christ had to be put away and replaced instead with humility and the love of and for God: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9: 4). The persecutor becomes the disciple and defender of Christ, chosen by him to be “his witness to all the world of what [he has] seen and heard.” (Acts 22: 15).
Bottega of Mattia Preti, Intercession of St Paul over the Moors in 1429, Mdina Cathedral
This late seventeenth-century work by the bottega (or workshop) of Mattia Preti depicts a popular legend that recounts how the local inhabitants besieged within Mdina were delivered from the invading Moors in 1429 through the miraculous intercession of St Paul. Allegedly, St Paul, dressed in a star-studded blue cloak, with sword in hand and riding on a white horse, drove the invaders away. But like paintings, legends are precious for what they do not say but, nonetheless, reveal. The invasion of 1429 was clearly an episode that caused great despair, fear, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Although they felt abandoned and alone, the Maltese still hadn’t lost hope. Indeed, eventually, a grace was bestowed upon them and help, of some form or other, arrived. It was this moment, of relief and restored joy and peace, by the grace of God, that was chosen to be celebrated in the legend and immortalised in this painting.
Bottega of Mattia Preti, Shipwreck of St Paul, apse of the Mdina Cathedral
In the apse of the Mdina Cathedral, we find a depiction of one of the most iconic episodes of the life of St Paul associated with the Islands: the shipwreck of St Paul off the island of Malta. The apse of the church is usually reserved for representations of glory, of heaven or the apotheosis of saints, not of storms and shipwrecks. But in truth, what we have is in fact, a triumph over fear, loss and death.
An angel holds a banner that reads “Do not be afraid Paul, you will come to an Island” (Acts 27: 24), recalling the reassuring words of Paul that no one on the ship will come to harms way if they obey his command, which is the command of God. Above is the heavenly Father and Holy Spirit and his angels disperse the clouds and blow the ship to land. Metaphorically, the stormy sea is a symbol of death; to make it across to dry land is thus an allegory of the victory of life over death by the grace of God. Curiously, Christ is absent in this scene, although he is present in the altarpiece beneath. But might it not also be that St Paul, here, is a stand-in for Christ? “As you have sent me into the world; I have sent them into the world.” (John 17: 18)