St Agatha’s Catacombs, Rabat

In the early 1950's, whilst working as Associated Press's representative in Malta, I was privileged to meet and befriend, in the course of our work, Father Victor Camilleri MSSP (1933 – 2011). He was unquestionably one of the foremost authorities on the catacombs as well as the founder and curator of the St Agatha's museum.
 
Tucked away in the narrow streets of Rabat, outside the walled city of Mdina, (and only a few yards from where I used to live) is the entrance to what can only be described as an amazing experience. Though situated opposite Malta's famous St Paul's catacombs, in my opinion St Agatha's is superior because of its unique frescoes and remarkable museum maintained by the Missionary Society of St Paul.
 
According to legend, Agatha, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor, Trajanus Decius (AD 249 – 251) fled with some of her friends from Sicily, her native land, and took refuge in Malta. Some historians believe her stay was rather short and that she spent her days in the crypt at Rabat, in prayers and teaching the Christian faith to the children. After some time, Agatha yearned to return to Sicily and witness her faith there, even at the risk of martyrdom.
 
On landing in Sicily, Agatha was arrested and brought before Quintanus, praetor of Catania, who condemned her to torture and imprisonment. A few days later, on 5 February 251, Agatha died in prison as a martyr. The crypt in Malta where she used to stay was named after her, as were the nearby catacombs. Later, a church was built over the crypt.
 
The crypt of St Agatha is hewn in live rock and is an underground basilica, venerated from early ages by the Maltese. At the time of St Agatha's stay, the crypt was a small natural cave which only later on, in the 4th or 5th century, was enlarged and embellished.
 
At the far end of the crypt is the main altar dedicated to the saint. This altar was still used for worship until 1647.
 
When Mgr. Lucas Buenos was Bishop of Malta (from 1664 – 1668), he visited the crypt and donated an alabaster statue of the saint undergoing martyrdom during which both breasts were severed from her body. Sculptured in Trapani marble, it represents the saint tied to a tree trunk with a puttino (little cherub) holding a crown of roses above her head. The statue is set on a baroque pedestal within which is a tiny statue of the saint being set on fire. Today the statue can be admired in the museum.
 
In its place on the altar is a new fibreglass statue of the saint; the work of the Maltese artist Anton Agius. During the pastoral visit of Mgr. Pietro Duzina in 1575, many altars were recorded in the crypt. Today only two remain: the main altar and a side altar dedicated to Our Lady, Mother of Divine Grace.
 
The walls of the crypt still contain a number of frescoes. Some of these date back to the 12th century and are in the Siculo-Byzantine style, while others, in Greek style, date to around 1480. There are 30 images of saints of which 13 represent St Agatha. The remainder represent bishop saints, virgin and martyr saints. The 15th century Greek style frescoes are attributed to the Sicilian painter Salvatore D'Antonio. These were donated to the crypt by various devotees and offered in thanksgiving. Other paintings are still visible on the ceiling at the entrance of the right hand side.

I will never forget the day when we broke through the rubble and discovered what is now considered to be Malta's first church. Many of the frescoes were painstakingly restored by Giuseppe Calleja in 1881 and again from 1984 to 1989 by George Farrugia.
 
The Maltese catacombs were never intended to be hiding places or to serve as living quarters. They were underground cemeteries consisting of long narrow corridors with tombs and vaults on either side. Some of the tombs are also decorated with reliefs and frescoes.
 
Most of the tombs were used to inter two people and sometimes a double tomb had a thin wall separating one from the other. At other times, the bodies were placed side by side and the tombs contained up to five people.
 
Almost all graves contain a head rest; a sort of rock pillow. Each grave has a semi-circular cavity where the head of the deceased person was rested in position. These cavities indicate how many people were buried in each grave.
 
One of the most remarkable features in the Maltese catacombs is the agape tables, probably used as tables for a final farewell repast or wake. This is a round table carved out of the live rock about 60cm or more above ground level. The tables slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the chamber. At the upper part, they form a round table, flat and encircled with a rim about 6cm wide and 3cm high. Generally these tables are about 75cm in diameter. On the front part, a small section of the rim is opened which probably served to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.
 
Another distinguishing feature of the Maltese catacombs is the variety of tombs:
 
(i) The most important of all is the saddle-back canopied table grave. The upper part of the tomb, i.e. the cover, is like the saddleback of a horse, either cut from the same rock or placed when the internment took place. The canopy above is supported by four short pillars ending in arches on the four sides. At the back of each pillar, on the internal side of the tomb, horn-like pillars have been added as decorations.
 
(ii) Another type of grave is the canopied table grave, known in Italian as tomba a baldacchino. These are also cut from the rock and have four pillars to support the ceiling above, while forming arches on each side of the tomb and creating a sort of canopy above the grave. When the funeral was over and the grave sealed with stone slabs, the canopy seemed to form a table, hence its name.
 
(iii) The arcosolium is so called because at the entrance of the tomb it has an arch and a sill ("solium" in Latin). Such graves are cut within the sidewalls with the back of the arch creating a sort of half dome. The entrance to these graves is through a square opening about 45 cm on each side, while the grave itself is hidden by the wall.
 
(iv) Window graves are very similar to the arcosolium except that the back is flat within the vault. The entrance is also similar.
 
(v) Loculi are side graves hewn in the side walls. Most of these were intended for children or babies. Many times these are found near to each other and very near to the parent tomb, indicating the deceased child probably belonged to the same family.
 
Small niches can be seen to have been cut into the side walls. These were most probably used to hold an oil lamp to light the catacomb and many niches still bear soot marks.
 
Two of the tombs at St Agatha's Catacombs are decorated with mural paintings. On the wall near the head of one of these tombs is a Greek inscription which states "Before the Calends of September, Leonias was buried here". The inscription has eroded over the years and today, it is difficult to read.
 
The other tomb, a table grave, is decorated with frescoes that were hidden under a layer of 6cm of mortar. A coloured frieze surrounds the edges while a pelican in red is seen on each side. On the inner sides are floral wreaths with pink roses, green leaves and three roses in the centre of the wreath. It seems that on the back of this grave are more frescoes hidden under mortar.
 
One of the chambers in these catacombs seems to have been the Sancta Sanctorum (most holy place) within Christian catacombs. It has a radius of 275cm and is decorated with a pillar on each side. On top of the pillars is a capital joined with a frieze that goes all around the chamber. On one side is an arch, which was the altar of this primitive chapel. It is decorated with a 3rd century fresco representing a scallop shell painted in various colours: red, ochre, dark green, yellow and pale yellow. It symbolises the source of life that is God. In the middle is a cross with the Greek letter P (rho) with a horizontal line passing through its middle, an artistic variation of the Greek letter C (chi) and this symbol signifies Christ. On each end of the horizontal line are the Greek letters α and ω (alpha and omega), signifying that Christ is the beginning and the end (referring to Revelation 1:8; 21:6 and 22:13). Apart from the flowers, on both sides of the fresco, there is a dove with leaves or flowers in its claws. This is the best fresco that exists in the catacombs and dates from almost the beginning of the Maltese Christian era.
 
St Agatha's name is found in the litany of saints and martyrs, both Greek and Latin. Today she is revered as the patron saint for breast cancer, bell-founders, fireman, nurses and torture victims. The St Agatha's website provides more detailed information on the saint, the crypt and catacombs.
 
Dr Peter J. Shield
maltaheritage.com
 
Dr Shield spent five years at the end of his military career working with the archaeology department of Cambridge University on the excavation of Malta's catacombs with Dr David Trump and Fr Victor Camilleri. During this time he photographed and recorded all the archaeological sites on the Maltese islands, including the Ġgantija temples; the earliest freestanding stone temples in the world. He also worked for the then Maltese Government Information Department from 1955 – 1960 which included recording the treasures left by the Knights and displayed in museums and churches across the islands. He returned to Malta in 2004 to write his most recent book Malta – Mediterranean Jewel.