A polyptych of the Virgin of Mercy at the Augustinian Convent-Church at Rabat

Medieval Painting In Malta

 Excluding the fragmentary remains of murals in theEarly Christian hypogea, notably in the St. Agathacomplex, outside the ditch of Roman Mdina, no paintings in the Maltese Islands can be dated to before the late Middle Ages. Among the earliest surviving works is the icon of the Virgin painted on the rock in the cave-sanctuary at Mellieha, Byzantinesque in inspiration but Sicilian or South Italian in execution, its style dates it to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries.

In the cave-church of St. Agatha at Rabat two saints and a badly damaged Virgin Suckling the Child, seem to come from the same source. More significant is the mural in rock-cut oratory adjoining the Tad-Dejr Catacombs. Painted partly on to rock and partly on stucco used to level the rock, its central crucifixion group is once again Italo-Byzantinesque but the curved lines of the Crucified Christ seem to point to a fourteenth century Gothic influence.

The panel of the St. Luke Madonna, at Mdina Cathedral, is more sophisticated and though its refinement shows Tuscan or Umbrian influence. The richly embroidered dress of the Virgin, betrays a certain International Gothic sensibility indicating it was painted after the early fifteenth century. A magnificent polyptych of the Virgin of Mercy at the Augustinian Priorty at Rabat was painted in the same period and perhapscomes from the same artistic tradition. The panels were separated a long time ago but three of them form a triptych on which a Madonna, sits enthroned in majesty quietly suckling the Child, attended by two saints, Paul and Augustine, who both carry their symbols, while a fourth surviving panel shows a suave St. Catherine in courtly dress. The unknown artist was possibly South Italian but the aristocratic bearing of the saints, the rich brocades, the gold background and a certain preoccupation with producing a pleasing decorative effect again suggest, a familiarity with the northern International Style.

The frescoes that decorate the side walls of the tiny wayside chapel at Hal Millieri, near Zurrieq, the large saintly images belong to the Siculo-Byzantinesque tradition of severe standing saints. Gestures are stereotyped and draperies fall in stylized pleated folds that give volume and weight to the majestic saints who bless the spectator but avoid looking directly at him. A complete cycle of fourteenth and fifteenth century wall-paintings is the one at St. Agatha, Rabat, where several burial-chambers were recut and converted into an underground church,where the walls are covered with twenty-three panels of saints carrying their emblems.
 
The long political connection of the Maltese Islands with the Aragonese Crown, between 1282 and 1530, left an important imprint on Maltese art. Catalan and Valencian influences arrived by way of eastern Sicily about the beginning of the fifteenth century. The large and impressive Retable of St. Paul for Mdina Cathedral, now found at the Cathedral Museum, was probably painted about this time. Stylistically attributable to the circle of Luis Borassa (1360-1426), the leading painter of the International Gothic period in Spain, it is remarkable for its fantasy of composition, lively colours and accomplished technique. The painting is made up of a large central panel of St. Paul enthroned,surrounded by ten smaller panels, on eight of which the story of the Great Apostle is vividly retold with a wealth of pageantry and decorative detail. People and costumes are crisply portrayed. Fantasy and fact are fused to create a magic world of grace and charm. On the predella, Saints Peter, Catherine and Agatha are agonised against the gold background as they sit elegantly to hold consultation together while, on the crowning central panel, musician angels entertain the aristocratic Virgin and her Child in a scene that is exquisitely beautiful.

Another important retable somehow found its way to the village of Qormi, where the church of St. George had been either rebuilt or modified in 1456. Four panels survive, respectively a large Lamentation for Christ, St. George, St. Gregory and a Crucifixus, all works of considerable sophistication. Their style, which is a mixture of Italo-Byzantinesque and Late Gothic elements, hint that the retable may have been commissioned from a North Italian workshop active in the second half of the fifteenth century. The style of the sorrowing Virgin, who presses her face against the cheek of her lifeless Son, is Byzantine but the treatment of the background and of the other figures, is in a purely International Gothic style and it is painted with extreme refinement, courtly elegance and love for exquisite patterns, intense colours and use of gold leaf. The St. George and St. Gregory panels in the Qormi Church Museum are in a completely International Gothic idiom. St. George rides a white steed as he fights the dragon in the presence of the beautiful princess who prays on her knees for the valiant Knight who has come to her rescue. Rather than a religious picture this is an enchanted Arthurian adventure in which goodness triumphsover the evil allegorized in the picturesque dragon, with the fairy-tale atmosphere further enhanced by the distant castle on a steep hill.

Our knowledge of artistic patronage in fifteenth century Malta is very restricted but often points to an unexpected sophistication in the choice of artists and workshops, that called for contacts not only with nearby Sicily but also with the Italian mainland and perhaps even further. Venice was an influential centre, possibly because Malta was an important port of call for Venetian galleys. A bell with a relief figure of St. Paul and Venice’s rampant lion symbols was made there, for the Mdina Cathedral, in 1370 and, in 1422. Don Bernardus Janer, left instructions for his heirs to order an embroidered banderiam, (a hanging screen, tapestry or banner) depicting St. Paul from Venice.

Later on important contacts were established with the prestigious Palermo workshop of the GAGGINI family of sculptors which supplied Malta with several works. The strongest links were, however, with the Sicilian followers of ANTONELLO DA MESSINA (c. 1430 – 79)through whom new artistic currents started reaching the MalteseIslands in the last decades of the fifteenth century.The works of the Messina painters were certainly well known and appreciated.Thereis also the great probability of a close family link between Antonello and Malta. GIOVANNI DE SALIBA’s painter sons, PIETRO and ANTONIO DE SALIBA - also known as DE MESSINA – were well known in Malta. Pietro (d. 1530) was active in Malta as the painter Petru de Messina between 1477 and 1481. In 1517 Antonioproduced, for the Church of the Minor Observants at Rabat the Lamentation for Christ and the Madonna and Child Enthroned, both interesting works remarkable for their Early Renaissance freshness and clarity of vision.
 
Working alongside the foreign artists were local craftsmen who painted small paintings for many of the islands' numerous churches and sometimes decorated their inside walls as well. One of them was the Carmelite friar JOHANNES PULCELLA (doc. 1496-1508) who, in 1496, agreed to paint the altarpiece and decorate the apse of the new church of the Virgin at Attard with a mural similar to the one existing in the shrine at Wied Ziri, Mosta. If the mural turned out to be better work than the Mosta painting, Pulcella was promised the agreed payment of 9 florins. If, on the other hand it turned out to be an inferior work, he was to forfeit his payment!
 
Some panel paintings drew widespread devotion. One of them, an apparently late medieval, Italo-Byzantinesque icon of the Virgin Suckling the Child was venerated at the Birgu Dominican Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin. The icon was claimed to have come from the rock-cut church of the Nativity of the Virgin at Fort St. Angelo which also had a painting of the Soccorso Madonna. This Sicilian work dated 1462 shows courtly refinement and the decorative appeal of the International Style; the enthroned Madonna, holding the Child on her lap, and wearing a richly brocaded mantle, was depicted clutching a small child from the wrist to protect him from the devil  trying to drag him to hell. Both were destroyed during a German air raid in January 1941.
 
The Virgin of Graces triptych venerated at the Tal-Mirakli Church, near Lija, showing the Virgin and Child accompanied by saints Peter and Nicholas, is better known but of lesser artistic merit. The size of the Virgin and the clumsily-drawn three-dimensional throne exclude a date earlier than the mid-sixteenth century. This is a provincial work which, to an extent, typifies the state of art in Malta before the cultural awakening that began in the last three decades of the sixteenth century.


Enthroned Madonna and Child with Angels, by Antonio de Saliba
Enthroned Madonna and Child with Angels, by Antonio de Saliba
The central panel of St. Paul enthroned in the Retable of St. Paul at the Mdina Cathedral
The central panel of St. Paul enthroned in the Retable of St. Paul at the Mdina Cathedral
The whole Retable of St. Paul at the Mdina Cathedral
The whole Retable of St. Paul at the Mdina Cathedral
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 1
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 1
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 2
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 2
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 3
Frescoes at Ħal Millieri Medieval Chapel 3
Frescoes at cave-church of St. Agatha at Rabat 1
Frescoes at cave-church of St. Agatha at Rabat 1
Frescoes at cave-church of St. Agatha at Rabat 2
Frescoes at cave-church of St. Agatha at Rabat 2