I. Church and Priory

The first Dominicans in Malta

About a mile to the south of the old city of Mdina, just before leaving Rabat for Buskett, the Dominicans have a church and priory dedicated to Our Lady of the Grotto, so called because they were built on the site of a cave where about the year 1400 Our Lady is said to have appeared to a hunter. A detailed account of this apparition is found in the old records of the priory written by Rev. Francis Azzoppardo O.P. (1626-1682).

After the apparition, the Maltese placed an icon of Our Lady in the cave or crypt, and later the Dominicans decorated the walls with various paintings. As far aw we know, the first legacy dates back to the year 1414, when Frederick de Bordino left some votive old to keep a lamp burning in front of the image of Our Lady. During the first years of the second half of the 15th century, Matthew Curmi, known as Slampa, built a chapel on the site of the hallowed crypt. In 1458 he directed that the chapel or small church be furnished with a picture of Our Lady and, moreover, he left a sum of money for the priest who would be in charge of the same chapel.

About 1450, three Dominicans from the Province of Sicily, belonging to the congregation reformed by Bl. Peter Geremia, founded the first Dominican house in Malta. One of them was the Maltese Dominican Fr. Peter Zurki. They took up residence near the crypt where Our Lady had appeared, and made use of the same crypt in order to carry out their apostolate among the Maltese. Their first known benefactor was Bartholomew Bonello who, in 1452, bequeathed all his property to the "priory of Our Lady of the Grotto", should his heirs, Paul and Manfred Bonello, die without offspring.

 

The first priory and large church

In spite of the fact that the crypt or grotto of Our Lady was situated some distance from the old city of Mdina, in a waste region with several caves here and there, the Maltese visited the hallowed grotto in ever increasing numbers, thanks to the efforts of the Dominicans. The devotion to the grotto of Our Lady was thus becoming widespread. It was no surprise, therefore, that on 15th March 1462 the Town Council of Mdina unanimously decided that "a written petition be sent to the Pope that the church of Our Lady of the Grotto should be annexed to St. Dominic's priory". In fact, the chapel or small church built by Curmi Slampa was soon granted to the Dominicans, and in 1466 they had already started building a larger church, to replace the small one, also dedicated to Our Lady of the Grotto.

In 1466, Fr. P. Zurki and two Dominicans from Sicily had already taken up residence in the house, then under construction, adjoining the church already mentioned. One can form an idea of the size of the new church and priory from the size of the choir - twenty stalls on each side - for which Fr. Zurki had placed an order with the brothers Parisio and Pietro Antonio Calachura of Catania in 1482. The church and the priory were completed about the year 1505.

 

Benefactors of the first foundation

For the completion of the construction of the church and priory the Dominicans had received substantial help. In 1466 and 1480 the Bishops of Malta Anton de Alagona and John Paternò, together with the Canons of the Cathedral Chapter, gave them plots of land in the neighbourhood of the church and priory of Our Lady of the Grotto. Between 1495 and 1498 the Civil Authorities gave twelve oncie - a considerable sum for those days. The Dominicans were able to secure this help because they were well acquainted with the best people of Mdina and were held in high esteem by them. These were sometimes elected to serve as jurats of the Commune, or else they were chosen to be members of the Town Council of Mdina.

Moreover, people from every walk of life helped in every possible way for a sound foundation of the Dominican Order in Malta. Several records of legacies and donations made by various benefactors are still preserved in the archives of the priory. Worthy of mention among foreign benefactors was the King of Spain, Ferdinand, who in 1512 gave to the Dominicans six plots of land in the region known as il-Fiddien and another three plots in Burmarrad.

Some of the most distinguished families, among them Iguanez, Xerri, Falzon, Baglio, Nava and Caxaro, had their own chapel in the new church of Our Lady of the Grotto. The building of the church was thus completed, and even enlarged, within a short time, while the Friars were able to make their living on the incomes from legacies for the celebration of feasts and Masses in the same chapels.

 

Repairs and alterations to the church building

In the course of time several alterations were made to the church of Our Lady of the Grotto. Between 1616 and 1630 almost the entire building was brought down, exception being made fro the main walls and some chapels. On the side of the main altar, the church was enlarged by adding two large transepts and building a new chancel. The wooden ceiling was replaced by a vault, and a dome was also built. This work was carried out by some of the best masters, like John Attard and Thomas Dingli, both well known for work undertaken in other churches.

In the year 1727 the Dominicans entrusted to the master builder Saviour Borg the construction of a new frontpiece to their church. During the same period, improvements were also made to some of the existing chapels, giving them a more beautiful perspective. Their shape was changed from a square to an oval one; they were embellished with sculptured reredoses and new and new altar paintings, and a small dome as added to each one.

Final alterations to the church, giving is its present appearance, were carried out after it had sustained considerable damage in a series of earthquakes in 1743. In fact, a few years later not only was the damage repaired, but a second storey (clerestory) and a large dome was added, and the apse and transepts were also reconstructed. Besides, a portal was erected topped by a gallery to house an organ and musicians.

 

The new priory: a gem of architecture

In 1630, when the construction of almost the entire church of Our Lady of the Grotto was completed by J. Attard and T. Dingli, the Dominican Fathers began without delay the building a new priory. The former one was in a dilapidated condition, brought about by time and by the vast damage sustained during the Turkish attacks in 1551 and during the Great Siege of 1565. Apparently the new priory was designed by Capitano Antonio, and although it was built in the traditional medieval style, it has the features typical of Maltese buildings. This new priory of Our Lady of the Grotto still survives and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful convents in Malta. Its fortress like construction is surrounded by green areas and trees. Inside it has a very imposing cloister, of exceptional height and width, with numerous large arches, separated from each outer by huge and massive pilasters, enclosing a spacious cloister garth.

A truly delightful balustrated terrace tops the ambulatories of the cloister. Three of its four surrounding walls are adorned with large and interesting sundials: one is designed to indicate the month of the year, while the rest denote the hour. Adjoining the northern and eastern sides of the terrace, there are two very long, wide and high arched corridors; these are flanked by several cells or rooms with windows facing Valletta and Mdina, for use of the members f the Dominican community. At an angle where the two corridors meet there is a stately belvedere with a large and sine sundial decorating it. Those who visit this convent, especially foreigners, remain impressed by its size and its architectural beauty.

 

Works of art in the church

While the general structure of the priory is a true gem of architecture, the church building does not give a similar impression. Nevertheless, its façade architecture is of a high standard; so are the chancel and the two transepts. The apse has a large oil painting and is enriched with beautiful gilded sculptures; the part below the cornice is the work of Paul Zahra. Both sides of the chancel are adorned with fine stalls carved by Anton Farrugia and Matthew Gambin. Two large oblong oil paintings, by Francis Zahra, embellished each side above the stalls: one represents St. Paul preaching to the Maltese people, while the other depicts the baptism of Publius being administered by the same Apostle. Formerly, these pictures adorned the sides of the chancel of the Collegiate church of St. Paul's Shipwreck, in Valletta.

Particularly fine are the reredoses, sculptured by Anton Fabri, of the altars of both transepts of the church. Each of those decorations is enhanced by a large painting: one represents Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, by Luke Garnier, the other the Annunciation, attributed to the Spanish painter Carrera. Beneath the latter on each side of the altar there are two small-framed pictures, representing the Archangels Michael and Raphael, most probably painted by F. Zahra. Other works in the church belonging to this Maltese artist include two small paintings of the Madonna with Child and of St Catherine V.M.; the first one is above the altar piece of the chapel of St. Catherine of Siena, the other in the chapel of the Holy Cross. The large fine painting of the Holy Name, located in the atrium (anteroom) of the sacristy, is also the work of F. Zahra.

Nine of the ten oval shaped chapels in the church have a large oil painting above the altar embellished with ornamental sculpture. The chapel of the Holy Cross has a statue of the Crucifixion instead of a large picture. The reredoses of the chapels of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of St. Pius V, sculpted by Paul Zahra, are quite attractive. So are the large altar pieces representing St. Thomas Aquinas, by Joseph Bonnici, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Lazarus Pisani, St. Dominic of Soriano, by Joseph Ragazzo, from Syracuse, and that of St. Vincent Ferrer, attributed to Francis Zahra. Of the works of art also worthy of note in the church of Our Lady of the Grotto, one ought to point out the Holy Communion railing made from yellow marble of Siena and decorated with several bronze panels representing eucharistic symbols. This work was designed by Joseph Galea, of Rabat, who also sculptured the original models for the bronze panels. But certainly the most precious work of art of which the church can be proud is the wooded statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, carved by the well-known Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Gafà

 

Chapel of Peter Caxaro

The chapel of St. Catherine of Siena ought to be most dear to the people of Malta because it founded by Peter Caxaro, who before 1485 wrote the first known poem in medieval Maltese. He was buried in his chapel. Dr. G. Wettinger and Fr. M. Fsadni O.P. discovered this poem, or Cantilena, in 1966, and published a detailed study about it.

Peter Caxaro, philosopher, poet and orator was naïve of Mdina was among the best0known people who had their own chapel built in the first church of Our Lady of the Grotto. Originally the painting in this chapel represented Our Lady of Help, with St. Dominic and St. James. In the seventeenth century it was replaced by another one also representing Our Lady of Help. Then in the second half of the eighteenth century, the chapel was rededicated to St. Catherine of Siena; thus a new oil painting in this saint replaced the old one. But in remembrance of the former dedication a small oval painting of the Madonna and Child (Our Lady of Help) was placed on top of the new altar piece, where it can still be seen today.

In the beginning of the seventeenth century, a Rosary with ebony beads (linked together) with a green silk cord, consisting of six decades and an ebony medallion bearing a representation of the Apostle St. James and of St. Dominic, was discovered in one of the tombs in this chapel. The Dominicans handed over this Rosary to G.F. Abela, a well-known historian and antiquarian, who had been asking for it passionately; he preserved it among his most precious old relics.

 

The sacristy and the oratory of the Rosary Confraternity

At the back of the church there is the oratory of the Rosary Confraternity and the sacristy of the church. This latter is spacious and impressive, with cupboards or lockers bordering almost the whole length of the walls and a large mahogany vestry-bench fitted with drawers and cupboards for storing all church vestments in the centre. The walls and ceiling are richly decorated and several paintings of benefactors and well-known Dominicans are hung to the walls. On the altar of the sacristy there is a very old statuary while marble tabernacle or reliquary (c. 1600), containing the relics of saints and having the figures of the Apostles Peter and Paul carved on the sides.

The ironwork decorating the door of the oratory of the Rosary Confraternity is very much refined and richly ornamented. The only thing worth noting is this oratory is the altar, with its reredos, probably the work of the Maltese sculptor Thomas Dingli. It is known for certain that Dingli had sculptured the reredos in the Holy Rosary transept in the church of Our Lady of the Grotto before this was rebuilt after being damaged by an earthquake. Probably this same reredos now adorns the altar in the private chapel of the priory.

Several articles, such as ancient vestments, including chasubles and copes formerly used for religious services, are now exhibited in the large halls of the side of the sacristy. Without any doubt the most precious item is a large holy water font belonging to the church of Our Lady of the Grotto built by Fr. P. Zurki. This font is made out of white marble sculptured in the shape of a shell, with the coat of arms and the name of Petrus Bercaxi, who donated it to the Dominicans about the year 1500. Another interesting item exhibited is an oil painting representing Fr. Dominic of St. Thomas, commonly called "The Ottoman". He was a Turkish prince who, in 1658, joined the Friars Preachers in Malta and was affiliated to the Dominican priory of Valletta; but he received the Dominican habit, made his novitiate and religious profession in the priory of Our Lady of the Grotto, at Rabat. He died in Malta during the plague of the year 1676.