Ta’Braxia Lecture

Start Date & Time: 10/11/2017 - 12:00 am

End Date & Time: 10/11/2017 - 12:00 am

On the evening of Friday 10th November 2017, FAA members assembled at the Italian Cultural Institute, Pjazza San Gorg, Valletta to hear a talk delivered by architect and architectural historian, Professor Conrad Thake and Janica Buhagiar MA, based on their research for their recently published book on ‘TA’ BRAXIA CEMETERY’.  They talked about the distinctive qualities and characteristics of a garden-cemetery and the diverse typology and rich iconographic symbolism of the various funerary monuments at Ta’ Braxia.  Astrid Vella introduced the speakers saying that Maltese cemeteries are of great interest as they bring together architecture, art, and nature.  Professor Thake added that this lecture is dedicated to the memory of recently slain blogger, Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Professor Thake started by saying that churchyards and cemeteries with botanical riches serve as historical records and referred to the political, religious and historical context of Ta’Braxia Cemetery.  In the mid 19th century in Malta, there was conflict between the British colonial authorities and the conservative Catholic establishment as British non-Catholics couldn’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries.  So the British colonial government, then headed by Governor Lieutenant Colonel William Reid, wanted to implement a project to build a cemetery to meet the needs of the increasing number of British non-Catholic troops and their families needing internment in Malta.  Another reason was that the existing burial grounds and cemeteries established in the Quarantine harbour, which overlooked Marsamxett harbour, available for non-Catholics, in particular the Msida Bastion cemetery, had reached full capacity by the 1850’s.  Only the Msida Bastion cemetery remains today.  So another site had to be identified to bury non-Catholics and those of other religions.  Governor William Read identified an area by Pieta creek, outside Portes de Bombes, Floriana but in close proximity to the Grand Harbour, where a new cemetery could be built and be available for people of all faiths.  However, local newspapers, Il Portofoglio Maltese and L’Ordine were critical of the project.

In fact Ta’ Braxia Cemetery at Pietà was the first extra-mural cemetery to be established in Malta.  It was designed in 1855 and built by Emmanuele Luigi Galizia in 1856, completed and opened in 1857.  Emmanuele Galizia was the Works Department’s 25 years-old architect, and it was his first commission.  He became one of Malta’s most prolific architects during the second half of the nineteenth century and is also renowned for the design of the Addolorata and Turkish cemeteries and many fine buildings in Malta.  The cemetery would be looked after by a caretaker, living with his family in the cemetery grounds.  The Official Cemetery Regulation, dated Oct 1857, stated that the cemetery would be set up in compartments and open to all religions.  It ended up being primarily a cemetery for the British, but there were also Russians, Greek orthodox, Jews and other nationalities.  The last extension of the cemetery was in 1888.

Professor Thake went on to display copies of original archival maps of the old cemeteries located in the Quarantine area, namely the Plague cemetery, Cholera cemetery, Msida Bastion Military cemetery, Greek Orthodox cemetery, and the Duluri Church plus the old Jewish cemetery.  Next Prof. Thake showed Emmanuele Luigi Galizia’s architectural plans, dated 26 June 1880, of the Ta’ Braxia cemetery showing dividing walls with central pilasters adorned with finials, a view of the central passageway (with shrubs, plants, trees), plus his design of an elegant fountain adorned with a classical stone urn set on a pedestal within a shallow water basin.  Sadly, bombing during World War II damaged several of the larger ornamental monuments at Ta’ Braxia, and the blasts flattened several of the vertical headstones.

Janica’s illustrated talk focused on the diverse typology and rich iconographic symbolism of the various funerary monuments in Ta’ Braxia’s extra-mural cemetery.  She explained the meanings of symbols carved on a rich diversity of funerary monuments.  Symbols included: inverted torch with burning flame; wreath of flowers; wreath of narcissus bulbs; acanthus leaves; hourglass; ouroboros motif; pelican; angels; birds of paradise; geometric symbols, ladder; columns; chisel and mallet; and others.  Some iconographical motifs allude to past memberships of local masonic lodges.

Some of the monuments shown were of: Thomas Blayds Molyneux; Anne Mitchell (1873); Christiana and John Robinson (1870); Mary Ann Lange (1881); William Stephen Eynaud (1871); HMS Gibraltar (1865); The 100th (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot; Thomas Dyke Ackland Fortescue (1865); Mary Ann Smith (1871); Dominic Pangiris (1923); James Richard Colnett (1859); Patrick John Curran (1891); Alfred William Perham (1879); Colonel Marmaduke Ramsay (1893); and Olaf Frederick Gollcher (1889).

Apart from the above there is an Infants’ graves section of Ta’Braxia cemetery with the following monuments: Adelaide F. Wise (1871); Maude Kimm (1894); Francis Ernest Montagu (1863);and John L. Gordon Paterson (1905).  Overall the cemetery covers a wide area and contains not only many beautiful and important monuments but also interesting flora and fauna.

Professor Thake ended the lecture by talking about the origins and history of the Lady Rachel Hamilton Gordon chapel (1893-94), which is the main architectural icon of the Ta’ Braxia cemetery.  Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon(1829-1912) decided to build the unique Ta’ Braxia Cemetery Chapel in 1893 as a memorial to his wife Lady Rachel Hamilton Gordon, who died on the 28th January 1889, and chose John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), a British Gothic Revival architect, to design the chapel.  The foundation stone of the chapel was laid on the 29th May 1893.  Prof. Thake showed a selection of architectural drawings of sections of the domed memorial chapel.  The inner chapel consisted of 8 inner columns and 16 outer columns with the ambulatory between them.  Around the chapel’s external walls there are a series of pointed arches supported on circular stone columns, empty niches, twelve circular windows in various geometric designs, eight pairs of slit windows, and an extended sepulchral monument of Lady Hamilton Gordon set within a gracious Gothic-style stone tabernacle, attached to the external walls of the circular chancel.  To conclude his talk, Prof. Thake invited FAA members to a guided tour of Ta’Braxia Cemetery at 10:00 am, Sat. 18th November 2017.

At the end of the evening, Prof. Thake signed copies of his book purchased by FAA members.  Alternatively his book can be pre-purchased by completing the form accessible on the following website: https://imgur.com/a/MfQr1

Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer

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