One cannot but be fascinated by the chapels peppering the Maltese countryside. Despite their humble character, there is great interest in their history.
The fact that some of these chapels are found in the least likely places – sheltered in caves or hidden in some unreachable valley, for example – has heightened their mystery even further, as each chapel, wherever its location, has its own story to tell.
Some of these chapels are, in fact, small churches. According to Prof. Mario Buhagiar of the University of Malta, History of Art Department, in the Maltese medieval context, the word cappella referred to what we would today call the parish church.
We owe much of our knowledge on early Maltese churches to Mgr Pietro Dusina’s report drawn up during his apostolic visit to the island in 1575. It is the first detailed documentary source of the state of the Church in Malta at the time. Visiting Malta only 10 years after the Great Siege of 1565, when all chapels outside the urban areas had fallen under the Turks who had ransacked them, Mgr Dusina gave an exhaustive account of the state of the Church in Malta, as well as reports on the physical state of churches, some of which were deconsecrated due to their poor condition.
Our earliest chapels are thought to date back to the 12th and 13th century when the Basilian monks who came from southern Italy started the process of re-Christianisation of Malta. Malta at that time was essentially a Muslim community after the long Arab presence which lasted from 870 to 1240 AD, even if the Normans first came to Malta in 1091. The earliest type of churches may be said to have been troglodytic or rock-cut churches, sometimes also called crypta.
These chapels were usually either cut into a cliff face, or were natural caves adapted for use as a church. Their main purpose was to serve the community of farmers in that area, although the seclusion of these cave churches offered the opportunity for an isolated and contemplative life for a hermit.
Examples of these rock-cut churches include the chapel of St Paul the Hermit at Wied il-Għasel in Mosta, Ġebel San Pietru near Naxxar, Għar San Niklaw near Mellieħa, and Ġebel Ciantar near Siġġiewi, as well as the well-known Sanctuary of the Nativity of the Our Lady in Mellieħa.
Other rock-cut churches were associated with early Christian catacombs, such as those of St Paul and St Agatha in Rabat, the two largest underground cemeteries in Malta. The first known reference to a built church in Malta is, curiously enough, found on a portolan (old map) of 1296, where a church dedicated to St Mary on Comino is identified.
The earliest types of chapels were quite and relatively unadorned, usually looking no different to a small square room.
An apse of a cylindrical or occasionally square shape could often be found on the east end. The roof was normally slightly pitched and supported by gently pointed arches. The doorway was usually low, and it too had a slightly pointed archway.
Unfortunately, today few doorways show these original features since most of them have been either heightened or re-cut to a square-headed shape. It was popular for a church in the 15th and 16th century to have additional doors on the side façades, permitting entrance into adjoining churches or to a burial ground, as in the case of the church of the Assumption at Ħal Millieri.
These medieval churches do not have windows but instead, they normally have a small slit allowing the church to have some ventilation. Because of this, these churches were also very poorly illuminated. During his apostolic visit, Mgr Dusina ordered that oculi (or deep eyes – a rounded window) be constructed above the main doors to provide better illumination inside the chapel. The design of the oculus varied, with some being simple and others being heavily ornamented.
In his report, Mgr Dusina made reference to bells and bell-cots, since with the exception of Santa Marija tal-Ħlas in Qormi, it seemed these only featured in the larger parish churches. Bells were costly and poor churches had to do without them. It is also possible that any bells which were originally there, were taken by the Turks to be melted to make cannons.
Another characteristic feature of these churches is the water spouts (mwieżeb) positioned around their roof. Their function was strictly utilitarian, serving to drain the roof from the rain – even if they look pretty and quaint.
Inside, the chapels were simple and generally bare. The altar stood in the apse at the east end, but additional altars could also be found around the church. Stone benches (dukkiena) were sometimes placed along the sides of the church, although people usually ended up sitting on the floor. The floor itself was sometimes covered with flagstones but more frequently with beaten earth known as torba; a composition of soil mixed with stone chips, which was then covered by a thin film of lime and clay.
These churches occasionally accommodated burials. However, burials generally took place in graves just outside the church, under the parvis (zuntier).
A particular feature in some of our oldest chapels, such as that of Ħal Millieri, is that one needs to go down a few steps to enter the church giving the impression that the church is anchored to the ground. This could have been done to associate the chapel with a cave or tomb, symbolic of Jesus being born in a cave and resurrecting from a tomb. Symbolism was very important to the medieval builders of these churches.
Another interesting feature found inside these old chapels which can be traced to the Eastern rite was the iconostasis; a large wooden gate which used to separate the altar area from the rest of the church. One such iconostasis is still found in the chapel at Comino. In other chapels, only the holding-holes in the masonry remain.
Some medieval chapels used to have frescoes on their walls. Unfortunately, today only a few have survived, with those at the church of Ħal Millieri being among the best preserved set. Frescoes are also found in the church of Santa Marija of Bir Miftuħ in Gudja depicting the Last Judgment, with pictures of little devils taking the poor souls of the damned to hell. On the other hand, the frescoes of saints found in Ħal Millieri are thought to be copies of images found in an earlier church on the same site.
The churches that carry the greatest architectural value are those built during the time of the Order of St John, when funds were available to engage the best architects, sculptors and painters of the period, who adorned our churches with treasures.
These churches were generally built or patronised by members of the Order, not by farmers, and so they ended up as rich show-pieces. Renowned artists such as Mattia Preti, who had been entrusted with works in the Order’s Conventual Church of St John, was the architect of Sarria church in Floriana, and was also responsible for a number of titular paintings and altar pieces found in several chapels, including that of Tal-Mirakli in Lija and that of St Anthony the Abbot found in Verdala Palace.
Some Grand Masters and knights, like Fra Wolfgang Philipp von Guttenberg, who loved these churches, were among the main benefactors of many churches dedicated to Our Lady found in Malta. These include the ones dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy in Qrendi and the Immaculate Conception in Msida.
Mgr Dusina visited over 400 chapels in Malta and Gozo. At the time, the population numbered around 20,000, so one could say there was a chapel for every 50 inhabitants. Mgr Dusina’s report revealed that most of these churches were dedicated to Our Lady under one of several different titles.
Interestingly, at the time, a number of chapels were built exactly next to each other. In 1575 there were at least 22 such pairs, with some other villages having three and even four churches close to each other. Today one can find an example of these chapels in Naxxar (those of St Lucy and the Nativity of Our Lady) as well as the chapels of St Roque, the Annunciation and St Leonard (today a private residence) in Balzan. Other villages had a concentration of chapels in one place, as was Ħax-Xluq near Siġġiewi.
Besides the fact that religion was the central focus of life at the time, it is also believed that most chapels were built as an ex-voto in thanksgiving for a grace or favour received from Our Lord, the Virgin Mary or a saint. This would explain why there are more chapels dedicated to particular saints, such as St Roque, the protector against infectious diseases including the plague, and to St Leonard, the patron saint of captives and slaves.
Another reason for the large number of churches was their use to bury the dead. Other churches were privately owned and this earned the founders and their families the right to be buried inside them. However, owners of these churches had a number of obligations regarding their privilege of and maintaining them, as well as the celebration of Masses and the singing of vespers on feast-days.
Another possible reason for the large number of churches is that since at the time most people worked the fields and lived in small village clusters with poor road links, it was much easier for them to attend churches built close to them.
However, one must also keep in mind that the only activities held in these churches was a Mass on the feast day of their patron saint and therefore to hear Mass more frequently than once a year, they still had to travel to the parish church.
Talking of churches or chapels one cannot but bring to mind the numerous legends associated with them. The best known are those associated with the churches of Tal-Isperanza in Mosta and that of Żguġina connected to the chapel of San Dimitri in Għarb, Gozo.
A particularly fascinating legend is that of a monument with three crosses and sculpted with several Passion symbols. It is close to the chapel of Our Lady of Light at Bidni Hill in Marsascala and speculation abounds as to why it was erected. One version is that until 1615, Żabbar and Marsascala formed part of Żejtun. Since Żabbar’s population was growing, the residents petitioned the bishop to establish it as an independent parish. This was granted and so it is said that this cross was built to establish the parish limits of Żejtun and Żabbar.
Yet, the writer Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi narrates three further stories regarding the origin of these crosses which include the burial there of three monks killed by the Turks, while a second story tells of a plague victim buried there. But the last and most intriguing is that of a hermit who had been buried under those crosses after rising three times from the dead.
Here one has to mention the deteriorating state of many chapels, particularly four that require immediate attention: the chapels of the Annunciation at Is-Salib tal-Għolja in Siġġiewi, the chapel of the Visitation at Wied Qirda in Żebbuġ, that of St Michael is-Sanċier outside Rabat, as well as that of St Peter the Fisherman in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. Unfortunately some of our chapels are being left closed for a long time while others are being used simply as storerooms.
These small wayside chapels are little architectural gems that should be preserved. While they may not be as striking as other churches, they still have their story to tell. Preserving them for future generations is like preserving a family heirloom, which once lost, cannot be retrieved. And with their loss, a part of our history will be obliterated.
• Kilin (2000) A Hundred Wayside Chapels of Malta and Gozo. Heritage Books.
• George Aquilina OFM and Stanley Fiorini (2001) Documentary Sources of Maltese History. Malta University Press.
• Mario Buhagiar (2005) The Late Medieval Art and Architecture of the Maltese Islands. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
• Rev. Canon Joe Abela (1999) Marsascala – Wied il-Ghajn. Marsascala Parish Pastoral Parish Publication.