The Beauty of the Addolorata – Walking Tour

Start Date & Time: 29/04/2017 - 11:00 am

End Date & Time: 29/04/2017 - 1:00 pm

On Saturday 29th April, FAA members assembled inside the entrance to the Addolorata Cemetery in Marsa for a two-hour guided tour explaining the history and design of the cemetery and the artistry of its private funerary chapels.  The tour was led by experts Prof Conrad Thake, author and expert in Maltese architectural history, Dr. Mark Sagona, an artist and historian, and Dr. Mario Borg, an expert on funerary chapels.

The Introduction was given by Prof. Thake who outlined the history of internment in Malta, saying that the Catholic church had formerly been against extramural cemeteries and therefore the prevailing type of burial had been in or beside churches.  However extramural internment was eventually agreed to and the prolific architect Emanuele Luigi Galizia (1830-1906) was entrusted to design the Addolorata Cemetery.  Subsequently the Addolorata Cemetery was built on a derelict parcel of land at Tal-Horr Hill situated close to Floriana, Valletta and the Three Cities, so that people did not have far to walk to attend a funeral.  The cemetery took seven years to build, from 1862 to 1869.  Emanuele Galizia abandoned the baroque style so dear to Maltese Catholics and chose something modern, referred to as neo-Gothic.  Prof. Thake added that one week before the inauguration of the Addolorata Cemetery the Government of Malta on the 3rd May 1869 passed the “Law of Extramural Internment”, and also added that the Addolorata Cemetery Chapel, Santa Maria Addolorata (“Our Lady of Sorrows”) and Cemetery is considered to be one of the largest and most beautifully designed cemeteries of the world with its’ intricate stone carvings making it a wonder of Maltese architectural heritage.

Dr. Mark Sagona told members to observe the crispness and carvings of the stonework of the 19th century carvers and craftsmen to respect architect Emanuele Galizia’s designs.  On walking up the processional route to the church, the group stopped at the Barbar Funerary Chapel, the only one built along the central axis.  Here Dr. Mario Borg first mentioned the reason for having extramural burials was because of epidemics, so bodies had to be buried outside the cities.  Subsequently, all burials were extramural.  The only exceptions were for bishops, parish priests, and nuns who could be buried within their parish.  Dr. Borg brought to our attention the Barbar Funerary designs and their significance, which included the hour-glass, laurel leaf, burning fires, and inverted torches.

Dr. Mark Sagona talked about the different 19th century styles.  The cemetery is Neo-Classical in layout and design, standing out for its meticulous attention to detail and good design, with which Galizia was very familiar.  These funerary chapels and sepulchral monuments are among the finest examples in Malta of Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Eclectic and Art Nouveau art and architecture.  These sepulchral monuments have been commissioned by businessmen, bankers, architects, politicians, prelates, etc. as a manifestation of status.  Both Emanuele Galizia and Michael Busuttil were eclectic architects contributing to art in churches, but Nicola Zammit was the champion of eclecticism.  Walking further on the group viewed the prominent tomb of Michael Busuttil, aptly fitting for such a wealthy person, who was a fine designer and the ex-Superintendent of Public Works.

Prof. Thake described the neo-Gothic Cemetery Church (Fig 1), outside flanked by flying buttresses (Fig. 2), and inside with a wide nave with a coffered ceiling (Fig.3).  The side aisles were of lower height, with pointed arches, and with wooden coffered ceilings (rarely seen in Malta).  Above the arched stained glass window behind the altar there was an intricate web design.  Dr. Borg mentioned that the original stained glass window was destroyed in WWII.  Foreign workers were brought to Malta to effect repairs.  Also the bombing on north facing aisle destroyed much of the stained glass windows, whilst on the south facing aisle most of the stained glass has survived (Fig.4).

          Fig.1: Front Entrance to Church


 Fig.2: Back view of Church  


 Fig.3: Coffered ceiling above Nave.

Outside the back of the church (Fig.2), the group viewed the square plan funerary chapel of Emanuele Galizia exhibiting a French neo-classical style with a standard doorway flanked by columns, the Galizia coat of arms, an apse on either side and finials.  Nearby was a statue depicting a figure of a dying mother wept over by her son.  The statue, surrounded by the finest wrought iron grill in art-nouveau style, was damaged when it was hit by shrapnel in WWII, which passed right through the statue.

The tour leaders next took members to view the Adrian Dingli Neo Classical Funerary Chapel (Fig.5), which is surrounded by wrought-iron railings.  The windows in the main door are covered by a wrought-iron grill.  Above the door is a ‘scales of justice’ feature.  This was the first permited funerary chapel in the Cemetery and appears as no.1 in the Public Work Register.  Further on, there is a deep flamboyant Gothic Funerary vault built into the foundations, belonging to Tancredi Agius.  It has a unique style with a 19th century romantic feeling of ‘sleep’ or ‘longing’.  A carving in the stone can be seen of a man looking up at a woman in a window, and angels on the roof.  Nearby was a marble burial vault of Banchiere E. Scicluna, a man of great wealth who could therefore afford to have marble on his chapel which symbolizes that there is class distinction even amongst the dead.

    Fig.4: south facing arched aisle with stained glass windows.              


 Fig.5: Adrian Dingli Funerary.


 Fig.6: Messina family Funerary.

The guided tour ended by viewing the design on the large Funerary Chapel of the Messina family (Fig.6), designed by Nicola Zammit (1815-1899), a doctor, philosopher, designer, and self-taught architect, whose work was characterised by Eclecticism and Revivalism.  The exterior of the Messina sepulchral chapel is highly decorated with extensive stone carvings and symbols of death and the afterlife.  The chapel is dominated by eight delicately carved stone palm trees (trunk and fronds) of stone in a circular pattern around the funerary and which serve as support for the structure and the dome.  Other decorative features are very finely carved upright torches with flames, which symbolize enlightenment; hour-glass with wings, indicating the passage of time; the anchor, which is an early Christian symbol of Christ; a dove with an olive branch for peace; the cross representing the Redeemer; and a fish symbolizing a tomb.  Located nearby was the Andrea Vassallo pyramid, an example of Egyptian revival and the Liberty style.

Members thanked the three tour guides for an extremely interesting account of both the history of the Addolorata Cemetery and also of the artistry of its’ private Funerary Chapels.

Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer


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