Birgu – The Religious Heritage

Start Date & Time: 20/10/2017 - 12:00 am

End Date & Time: 20/10/2017 - 12:00 am

Birgu – The Religious Heritage

On the evening of Friday 20th October, FAA members gathered just outside Birgu’s Main Advanced Gate entrance for a guided tour led by experienced tour guide Vincent Zammit walking the trail of the Knights of St John along the streets of Birgu viewing the architectural styles and traditions, stretching up until the present, despite the ravages of time.


After a brief introduction in which Mr. Zammit informed FAA members that there are three gates to the city of Birgu, namely the Advanced Gate, the Couvre Porte (Cover Gate), and the Gate of Provence (Main Gate).  Prior to passing through the Couvre Porte, the group stopped on the bridge to view the ditch below which has been recently restored as a recreational area.  In the walls of the ditch were rock-cut churches where all day prayers were said.  The group continued, walking through the Couvre Porte and the Gate of Provence into Triq il-Mina Kbira, where Vincent stopped outside the Prince of Wales Own Band Club established in the 19th century, next to the Dominican Convent.  On the opposite side of the street there is an old medieval building marked with a small plaque indicating the site of an old Greek church dedicated to St. George.  Apparently, when the Knights departed from Rhodes, some 500 to 600 Knights and others arrived, settled and established their headquarters in Birgu in 1530 and they (the Rhodians) adopted the Church of St. George for their own use.  At the time this church was one of three Greek churches in Birgu and the religious community in existence in Birgu was the Dominican Order.  The other two medieval Greek churches have not survived.


Walking past the Dominican Convent, Vincent stopped at the Church of the Dominicans also known as the Church of the Annunciation.  In the 1450’s, the Dominicans had a small church in far-away Rabat, then in 1528 a small group came to Birgu and established a small convent.  However, when the Knights of the Order of St John arrived in 1530 they wanted their own church so took over the Dominican parish church.  The Dominican parish priest thus continued his duties in St. Lawrence Church.  The Dominican Church, dedicated to the Annunciation, emerged as the new parish church serving a very prosperous community of Rhodians that accompanied the Knights and with their ever-increasing population, the Dominicans had to make continuous modifications to their church and convent leading to an enriched religious heritage in the city of Birgu.  Then in 1574, the first Inquisitor came to Malta and soon after St. Dominic’s Church was returned back to the Dominicans.  In WW11 enemy bombs destroyed both the Church of the Annunciation and the Convent and the nearby Inquisitors Palace was hit by shrapnel.  Both the Church and the Convent were rebuilt after the war in the 1960’s.


Across the road a short distance away was the Inquisitors Palace. Vincent informed the group that pre-1530, the Bishop lived outside Malta.  Then when the first Inquisitor, who was a representative of the Pope with the main task of to safeguard the Roman Catholic faith in Malta and to try all cases concerning heresy, came to Malta in 1574 he first stayed in Fort St. Elmo.  However, the seat of the Inquisition was established in Birgu from 1574 and lasted for 224 years until it was abolished in 1798 by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte.  Vincent added that the interesting archives of the Inquisition are kept in the museum in Mdina and are open for research.


Vincent then led the group to the main square (Victory Square) in Birgu in which there are the headquarters of the St Lawrence Band Club with its elegant façade, the white statue of St. Lawrence erected in 1880, and the Victory Monument erected in 1705 to commemorate the Victory of the Great Siege.  It shows the personification of Malta in the form of a female warrior in full battle gear including a helmet, sword and shield.  Design of iron railings around the base of the statue are of alternating spears decorated in the shape of a cross, and swords.


Next Vincent led the group into an alleyway where the group viewed the church of St. Lawrence di Mare, which was supported by the generosity of sailors.  The alleyway used to be a cemetery for those who died during the Great Siege of 1565.  Also viewed was a large Oratory separate from the church.  Here, Vincent talked about confraternities (guilds) of which its members were professional tradesmen.  In medieval times, each confraternity had its own Saint.  The group walked past two oratories, one, the Oratory of St. Joseph confraternity, which is now used as a museum for the local church.  Inside there is an altar, and a monument with the sword of Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette and his hat.  The other, the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix built in 1720 (opposite the Church of St. Lawrence), is where statues of Holy Week are kept.  The latter is a very strong confraternity with established Holy Week religious processions where men wear hoods and pull a chain tied to their ankles.


Lastly, Vincent led the group into the Church of St. Lawrence, which was once commandeered by Knights of the Order of St. John from 1530 to 1571 to serve as their Conventual Church.  The Order ensured that its new conventual church dedicated to St Lawrence would be enhanced and adorned with the most holy relics and reliquaries, as well as religious icons, sacred vestments and liturgical items.  In the 17th century, a local architect named Lorenzo Gafà was commissioned to design the new Church.  The foundation stone was laid in 1681 and the building of this new beautiful and historic church was completed in 1697.  The church was hit and extensively damaged during WWII.  The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was rebuilt in 1951 and the dome rebuilt in 1952.  Currently the altar area is being restored, so the group was unable to view the titular painting by Mattia Preti showing the ‘Martyrdom of St Lawrence located behind the main altar as it was covered by a black cloth.  On the tour and talk around the church, Vincent drew the group’s attention to other features such as the wooden walnut pulpit made by local carpenters, two beautiful modern monuments, paintings by Filippo Paladini, (such as that of the “Three Plague Saints” – St. Paul, St. Rocco, and St. Sebastian), a statue in a case with vestments of the last Inquisitor of Malta, and a painting by Stefano Erardi showing ‘Christ holding a Cross’.


Thus the end of this religious heritage event finished in St. Lawrence Church where FAA members thanked Mr. Zammit for yet another fascinating and highly informative guided tour.


Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer

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