Paintings and Sculptures

Written by Rev. Gino Gauci

The old church of St Catherine had ties with the Mdina Cathedral from the outset of the 15th century, so much so that the Chapter Precentor used to receive the income derived from the lands around the church. This link with the Cathedral – the most important church in the island – means that the old church of St Catherine used also to gain from the contacts which the Cathedral had in the artistic sphere.

It seems that toward the end of the 15th century the Saliba brothers Antonio and Pietro had executed certain works for the Cathedral or churches I the vicinity (e.g. Rabat) and this makes us think that the panel of the Virgin Mary of the Circumcision
was produced by one of them. It appears from recent studies and restoration works (2011 – 2012) performed on this panel, that most probably Antonio was the author of this triptych of which only the central part has remained. This is one of the few artefacts of the Renaissance period we have in Malta.

In the months (1608) Caravaggio spent in our island, he was commissioned by the Knights of St John to produce fairly good number of works. Some of them are still in existence in Malta; others are in foreign lands, while others have been lost. Some of the painters that were in Malta, as what happened in Italy, were attracted to the style of Caravaggio and imitated him in their paintings. The canvas of the beheading of St Catherine in the Zejtun Parish Museum is one of the works of a painter very close to Caravaggio. We do not know whether this picture was designed by Caravaggio himself with a different subject, was discarded, and another artist who knew Caravaggio well, changed the subject and himself finished the canvas. The Museum boasts a painting with several elements of artistic and historical values. No wonder it attracts the special attention of international critics.

There are oeuvres in the old church of St Catherine, as the canvas of Pope St Gregory. From the few original sections still remaining and the coats-of arms of the Mdina University and Fra Pietro Gonzales, we assume that the painter was a skilful artist. The same can be said about the painting of the Virgin Mary of the Rosary which, inspite of the damage it sustained in bygone years, certainly draws the admiration of an onlooker because of its interesting composition and artistic technique especially visible in the medallion around the picture depicting the mysteries of the Rosary. There is also a canvas in honour of Our lady of Mount Carmel painted by a less competent artist. Two wooden statues, formerly in the church, but which are now exhibited in the parish museum, represent respectively St Michael and St Joseph. To carve the former one, the sculptor used a tree’s trunk, as he did for the statue’s pedestal, whilst the figure of the devil is inserted in between. The chain is admirably created link by link from one piece of wood. The statue of St Joseph boasts a remarkable artistic value, being probably unique in the Maltese islands. It still retains its original polychrome, whilst its gilding witnesses the artistic refinements of the Spanish statuary of this period. This makes us thin that this statue was imported from overseas. The altarpiece of the main altar is another canvas depicting the Martyrdom of St Catherine which replaced the one mentioned earlier with the decorative design encircling it. Standing on the chancel are two stone statues respectively representing St Catherine and St Euphemia. Originally these adorned the Italian Chapter in St John’s co-Cathedral in Valletta. The anonymous painter of this altarpiece was probably commissioned by the Cathedral’s Precentor, responsible for ST Gregory’s when the original canvas was transported to the new parish church where it was hung till it was replaced by a copy of Mattia Preti’s painting. Once the new parish church started to be used in 1708, all attention was focussed on how it could be embellished and decorated by the most capable artists of that time.

During the 18th an 19th centuries, impressive works of art were produced, including the two apsidal caps respectively, portraying the Institution of the Holy Rosary (1739-40) and the Adoration of the Dead Christ (1739). Here is visible the artistic rivalry between the two Maltese painters most popular at the time. Francesco Zahra (1710 – 1773) was a few years younger than Giovanni Nicola Buhagiar (1698 – 1752), but his composition around the Virgin Mary of the Rosary witnesses a notable artistic competence, especially in the way he positioned the figures and joined together all the details of the apse. Giovanni Nicola Buhagiar is more foreseeable and the dynamics present in Zahra’s composition are wholly absent from the apsidal cap of the Holy Crucifix. Beneath this latter apse hangs a statue of the crucifix that had been imported from Northern Italy. The altar piece of Our Lady of the Rosary on the opposite altar was painted by Giovanni Nicola Buhagiar as commissioned by the Holy Rosary Fraternity. This picture incorporates other saints linked to the devotion of the Holy Rosary. A wooden statuette, the work of Zejtun born Alessandro Farrugia (1791 – 1871), of the Child Jesus is safeguarded in a small niche by the altar. Though this is a diminutive artefact, the carver showed exceptional competence in the study of anatomy. Two other altars, respectively dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Girdle and to Pope St Gregory, are found in these transepts. Their two altar pieces could have been painted by anyone of the two artists already mentioned or by some artist close to them. The small picture representing St Gajetan with the child Jesus on the altar of the Virgin Mary of the Girdle was painted by Giuseppe Caruana (1899 – 1964).

Francesco Zahra also produced tow lateral canvasses in the choir, the ‘Debate of St. Catherine with the Philosophers’ and the ‘Transportation of the Dead Body of St Catherine on Mount Sinai’. Though it seems that Zahra never visited Italy, here he shows familiarity with everything that was taking place beyond our shores – tow works of art witnessing his complete control of baroque artistic technique and an innovative composition.

But the most important work of Zahra at Zejtun is undoubtedly the set of canvasses adorning the Oratory of the Holy Sacrament. This is a small church constructed between the years 1743 and 1746, annexed to the much larger parish church and boasting refined baroque sculptural works in Malta’s globigerina limestone. It was in the year 1765 that Zahra completed the six canvasses depicting episodes from the Old Testament connected with the Holy Eucharist. Whilst each picture displays a particular composition the choice of colours and the light and shade effects connect together the six canvasses into a single unique work of art. Here Francesco Zahra manifests his extraordinary artistic competence, showing that he was in no way inferior to the foreign painters the Knights of St John brought from overseas to work for them. The titular altar piece depicting Christ distributing Holy Communion to the Apostles was painted by Henricus Reynaud in 1759.

When construction work on the new parish church was almost terminated by the year 1720. The church administration took in hand the decoration of the choir and the transepts. Obviously in the choir, besides the two lateral canvasses the work of Francesco Zahra, there hangs also the titular altarpiece. It is difficult to understand what conduced parish priest Don Antonio Gafa and church administrator Don Lorenzo Mallia to opt for a copy of another artist. It is true that the painting by Mattia Preti if the Martyrdom of St Catherine in the church of the Italian Knights in Valletta was selected, an the copyist seems to have been very familiar with Preti’s school of art but the Zejtun canvases remains a duplicate of another painting. There exists other copies that sometimes compete with the original, but this is not the case here!

Work on the six lateral altars in the aisles of the church began in 1776 and other artists were commissioned to decorate them. Zejtun-born Michael Busuttil (1762 – 1831) painted the altar pieces of St Michael and the Baptism of St Publius by St Paul and maybe also the one of the Virgin Mary of Charity, whilst Rocco Buhagiar (1725 – 1805) produced the picture of Our lady of Mount Carmel. Giovanni Nicola Buhagiar’s painting of St Joseph (presently exhibited in the Parish Museum) was replaced by a picture by Ramiro Cali (1881 – 1945) representing the passing away of St Joseph. The same thing happened when the altar piece of St Andrea, a copy of the work by Mattia Preti in the parish church of Zurrieq, was substituted by a canvas on the same subject, the work of Vincenzo Hyzler (1813 – 1849). Beneath this altar piece is displayed a wooden sculptured work representing the Ecce Homo carved by Alessandro Farrugia, who executed, as already noted other artefacts in the same church and in other churches in Malta. Not far from this altar is the dated (1840) and signed oval picture of St Philomena, the work of Antonio Falzon (1805 – 1865). The decoration and paintings on the main dome, the vault of the central nave, transepts pendentives and choir, as well as the small cupolas in the side aisles, are all the work of Zejtun-born Toussaint Busuttil (1912 – 1994).

Besides the portraits of some of the archpriests that served in the parish, there are displayed in the main vestry other interesting works, but probably the most engaging item is the large picture of Girgor Bonici, the principal sponsor of the new parish church. He is portrayed as an elderly gentleman dressed as the Governor of Mdina and standing beside a table on which are shown some books witnessing his literary interests. So far the painter of this portrait has not been identified, whether he was a local artist or a foreigner, but undoubtedly he must have been closely acquainted with Mattia Preti or his school of art.

The parish museum contains several works of art, some of which boasting an outstanding artistic or historical value. A wooden statuette, the work of Alessandro Farrugia represents Jesus Saviour of the world. It retains the original polychrome of the carver. A gilded bronze group, certainly one of the most precious treasures in the Museum, portrays the Baptism of Christ by St John, the work of the renowned Italian artist Alessandro Algardi (1598 – 1654). It probably is the model on which Giuseppe Mazzuoli executed his huge white marble group in St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta. There are two similar models, one at the Vatican Museums and another, a terracotta one, in the Co-Cathedral Museum itself.