Caravaggio's Paiting the Beheading of St John found at the Co-Cathedral of St. John, Valletta.

Introduction to art in Malta

Although isolated, Malta’s art has been rich and varied, starting with the decorations of its Neolithic temples which were dedicated to the cult of fertility. Pottery found at Għar Dalam is the first of its kind in the Mediterranean. Malta’s prehistoric art goes from stone engravings of animals to the elaborate floral altar at Ħaġar Qim. However, right through this period, the stylised figurines or complex spiral bas-reliefs (carvings) are sophisticated in design and rich in symbolism.

With the arrival of the Phoenicians in Malta, artistic pieces became very different; with delicate carving in ivory and even a limestone statuette of a man in draped clothing. Pieces of jewellery found in tombs dating to about 900 BC include gold beads, rings, bracelets and armlets worked with images of winged griffons, trees and suns. From the 6th century BC, Maltese Phoenician communities came under the influence of Carthage and its art adopted a more oriental influence in its statues and burial traditions like sarcophagi (stone coffins) found in tombs.

During the Punic period, Maltese art was influenced by the Greek tradition like the rest of the Mediterranean, as seen in its marble sculpture, pottery of fine craftsmanship and terracotta figurines found at Tas-Silġ.

The Roman occupation in 216 BC ensured that art flourished in the form of wall paintings and mosaics, portraits and sculpture, both statues and bas reliefs. Many examples may be seen at the Roman Domus in Rabat where the floors are decorated by intricate stylised mosaic designs. Fine marble statues, including large draped figures as well as statues of Roman gods survive from this period.

With the spread of Christianity to Malta, Punic-Roman tombs in the Rabat area were enlarged to accommodate Christian burial ceremonies. The paintings and carvings dating to the 4th century or later in some of these catacombs show that culturally the islanders felt closer to eastern or Byzantine Christianity.

This community and its traditions were destroyed when Muslims from Tunisia landed in Malta in 869 AD. After being abandoned in the centuries of Arab domination, parts of these catacombs seem to have been used again in later medieval times with some of the better preserved and more defined fresco paintings dating from the late 13th to the early 16th centuries. Along with the wall paintings at Ħal Millieri Church, these frescoes show clear familiarity with the southern Gothic style of religious painting.

In 1530, Charles I of Spain, as King of Sicily, passed on the Maltese islands to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem whose rule was to last until 1798. The arrival of these knights from all over Europe brought wider European influences, particularly Italian and Flemish, and was followed by centuries of support for the arts. The most notable of the artists attracted to Malta was Caravaggio whose St Jerome and Beheading of St John remain a magnet for art-lovers. Mattia Preti’s wall paintings also add to the glory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, while works by Filippo Paladini, Matteo Perez d'Aleccio, Antoine de Favray, Guido Reni, Jusepe de Ribera, Carlo Maratta are to be found in several churches and museums along with works by Malta’s own by Melchior Gafà, Gio.Nicola Buhagiar and Francesco Zerafa.

Particularly important among these works are the various portraits of Grand Masters and other leading figures of the Order that decorated the Knights’ palaces and churches belonging to the Order. A remarkable selection of silverware, ceramics from the Sacra Infermeria (the main Hospital of the Order) and some grand examples of armour add to Malta’s artistic expression.

A sad period of pillage and dispersal of works followed the 1798 French occupation of Malta and during the early decades of British rule over Malta. Numerous works of art were thus lost forever. The early British period following the expulsion of the French was mainly dominated by foreign painters like Gianni, Charles de Brockdorff and the Schranz family. However, this changed in the 20th century, when extremely talented Maltese artists like Antonio Sciortino, Giuseppe Calì as well as brothers Edward and Robert Caruana Dingli set new standards for Maltese art.

The excitement of the post-war years and of Malta’s gaining Independence produced an artistic enthusiasm guided by Josef Kalleya, Alfred Chircop, George Preca, Anton Inglot, Emvin Cremona, Frank Portelli, Antoine Camilleri and Esprit Barthet, who succeeded in steering Malta beyond its traditional roots to more modern artistic expression.

To this very day, Malta remains extraordinarily rich in artistic talent, with artists exploring different fields and several exhibitions running concurrently throughout the year.