Fragments of tiers of paintings covered parts of the interior walls of the parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh

Early Knight's Painting in Malta - Part 2

At the old parish church of Siggiewi, which was enlarged and structurally modified several times between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries, cult images were painted in the spaces between the pilasters that carried the ceiling arches of the late-medieval nave. They survived in the ruins of the church until at least 1843 when drawings of five of the pictures were published in the monthly periodical Repertorio di Conoscenze Utili. These showed standing saints depicted frontally in the late medieval tradition but the figures, apparently, had greater solidity and were better individualized. They were posed in front of a low fence behind which a landscape with trees, probably, gave a measure of depth to the painting. There were seeming iconographical similarities with the early sixteenth century murals at St. Agatha but the drawings suggest a more
sophisticated style that points to a later date.

Two or more tiers of paintings covered parts of the interior walls of the parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh near Gudja; substantial fragments have survived and they have recently been restored. In the upper tier a procession of about twenty saints, carrying their symbols, occupies the length of the west wall; the mural is contained within an outer frame of red pigment enclosing an inner border containing a pattern of white semi-circles against a light blue background. These cult images are difficult to place stylistically but, as there are indications that the church may have received a new facade in the course of the sixteenth century, a late sixteenth century date seems likely.
 
In the lower tier are the remains of a mural of the Last Judgement with a quaintly picturesque scene of the torments of hell in which devils of several colours indulge with zest in the torment of naked souls. Of the paintings on the side walls, only one picture in the first bay on the left survives; it shows a figure in oriental-type headdress holding a bunch of lilies.
 
The altar-painting, in the same church, likewise belongs to the second half of the sixteenth century. Painted in oils on a segmental headed panel, it is the work of a provincial artist who outlined his figures with black lines making them look stiff and rigid. The picture has, nonetheless, some iconographic interest, particularly in the figure of God the Father who holds a crucifix as he sits, surrounded by angels in the top of the panel. In the space beneath is a hilly landscape in which the Virgin and Child sit on clouds, while Saints Peter and Paul stand guard on either side.
 
Stylistically related to the Bir Miftuh altarpiece, and possibly by the same painter, is one of the panels of the retable of Santa Marija at the Gozo Cathedral Museum. On it, the Virgin, who is being carried up to Heaven on a cloud, presents her girdle to the incredulous Thomas who is surrounded by the other Apostles. The figures are contoured by similar black lines but they seem less rigid and there is greater movement. In spite of the bad drawing, a certain skill is, furthermore, displayed in the organization of the rather crowded scene and the figure of St. John, in the extreme left hand comer, may have been inspired by a Mannerist work. On the two panels on either side, the Archangel Gabriel and the kneeling Virgin enact an Annunciation scene.

These three panels are in the middle of the retable which has recently been reconstructed as a three-tiered altarpiece. It is made up of seven panels which have been assembled in an ad hoc manner. They were produced by different painters who differed in style and lived at different periods. The paintings in the lower tier are stylistically datable to the first three decades of the sixteenth century. They seem to have come from the artistic milieu of Renaissance Sicily and they can be ascribed to a very mediocre artist who had contacts with the Messina School. On the central panel, the Virgin with the Child standing upright on her knees, sits on a draped colonnaded throne while two, rather grotesque, putti place a crown on her head. Saints Peter and Paul, on the side panels, are hieratic figures whose austerity is, however, softened by the landscape in which they stand.

The top tier contains only a panel of the Blessed Trinity crowning the Virgin. This is an early seventeenth century work. It is probably contemporaneous to the miraculous image of The Madonna ta' Pinu, venerated in the famous Marian shrine at Gharb, which was painted in 1619 by a little known artist named BARTOLOMEO AMADEO PERUGINO. The two paintings are, however, in an entirely different style.

It is not known if Perugino was born in Malta but he certainly resided on the island and in 1615 he married Vincensica Bonnici, setting up house in Valletta where his father Francesco is recorded in the 1580's. In The Madonna ta' Pinu, which he dated and inscribed, Amadeo Perugino drewan aristocratically elongated Virgin is being carried up to Heaven by four large angels against a background of diaphanous clouds and winged heads of putti. She rests her feet on the crescent moon of the Book of Revelations that rises in the sky above her empty sarcophagus-like tomb which is surrounded by the surprised Apostles. The work betrays a provincial, late Mannerist artist trained in the production of sweet cult images. Colour is, however, used with some sensitivity and the painting has an undeniable charm.

Perugino may also have painted the Assumption of the Virgin, in the chapel of Santa Marija tal-Qala, at Qala parish church, which has close iconographic similarities to The Madonna ta’ Pinu though the figure of the Virgin is better modelled. The canvas of the Immaculate Conception, in the parish church of the small Gozitan hill-top village of Zebbug, is another stylistically related work in which an area of light surrounds the graceful, slightly serpentine figure of the 'Virgin who wears a red robe and a blue mantle with bright stars and trimmed with gold. She folds her hands in devout prayer while the winged/heads of putti, who thrills among the tinted clouds, look at her in admiration.

More aware of the artistic realities of his time, but still very provincial in his approach, was GIOVANNI MARIA ABELA a painter of limited competence who, in the last decade of the sixteenth century produced several altarpieces of the Virgin of the Rosary. He may, in fact, have been familiar with artistic works outside Malta for his 1591 canvas, at the Cathedral Museum Mdina, looks very similar to a panel of the Rosary Madonna in Ischia. A later 1596 canvas, at Naxxar parish church, is decidedly more archaic but the iconography has, at the same time, a disarming naivety. The painting is dated but not signed and, like the other known paintings by Abela, it shows the Virgin surrounded by the fifteen Rosary Mysteries each one depicted in its own separate frame. The Virgin, who gives the Rosary beads to a group of saints, headed by Dominic and Catherine of Siena, wears an decorative mantle crowded with gold stars that enhance the decorative effect of the composition.

Bartolomeo Amadeo Perugino and Giovanni Maria Abela are two of the first Maltese painters to emerge from the gloom of anonymity. They both reacted only timidly to the new artistic stimuli that had started reaching the Maltese Islands through the works of important foreign artists. Until the second half of the seventeenth century it is, in fact, doubtful whether one can talk of Maltese Art at all; it would probably be more correct to speak in terms of foreign artists and Maltese craftsmen.

The folk art tradition of painting devotional images on wooden panels meanwhile produced two works of note. One is the triptych of The Filfla Madonna, in the parish church of Zurrieq. It was painted in 1604 but the iconography and the technique are so anachronistic that it can easily be mistaken for a late medieval work. Painted in tempera on wooden panels, it has an appealing prettiness and a graceful charm that may ultimately be more indebted to the Mannerist idiom than to the Late Gothic tradition. The beautiful figures of Saints Peter and Leonard, agonised against the gold background of the volets, look smooth and benevolent while the Virgin, on the central panel, is coolly and elegantly composed as she ascends to heaven in a luminous mandorla carried by four angels two of whom place a crown on her head.

The other panel is The St. Thomas, at the Zejtun Church Museum, which is said to have come from a little church at Ir-Ramla ta' San Tumas, close to Marsascala Bay. This is definitely a late painting, presumably datable to the early seventeenth century, and its style is entirely different from that of the late medieval icone. Thomas is no longer a hieratic cult-saint posed frontally to elicit our prayers. He has been injected with a new humanity. Gone too are the cool composure and detachment of the earlier saints. Instead we have an almost aggressive, very human figure. Dark and bow-legged and with a rough weather-beaten, bearded face and a balding head, he wears his halo uncomfortably as he lifts his bold gaze heavenwards and points an almost accusing finger to the top right hand corner where Divine Grace appears as the segment of a sphere with radiating rays. The mason's-square is gripped clumsily in his left hand and the closed gospel-book lies discarded at his feet. One almost gets the impression that a Zejtun fisherman or farmer must have posed for the artist. In the lower right hand corner is a little inset with a pleasantly old-fashioned depiction of the martyrdom of the saint while, curled round Thomas's right leg, on the flower-patterned ground, is a strange animal that looks like a crossbreed between a dog and a hedgehog. The St. Thomas panel was one of the very last productions of a dying tradition that was gradually being replaced by new styles and techniques that showed greater sophistication and a better cultural awareness.


The parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh 2
The parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh 2
The altar-painting in the background of Bir Miftuh Church
The altar-painting in the background of Bir Miftuh Church
The remains of a mural of the Last Judgement being restored
The remains of a mural of the Last Judgement being restored
The parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh 1
The parish church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh 1
The retable of Santa Marija at the Gozo Cathedral Museum
The retable of Santa Marija at the Gozo Cathedral Museum
The miraculous image of The Madonna ta' Pinu
The miraculous image of The Madonna ta' Pinu
The Madonna ta' Pinu Church in Gozo
The Madonna ta' Pinu Church in Gozo
The canvas of the Immaculate Conception, in the parish church of the small Gozitan village of Zebbug
The canvas of the Immaculate Conception, in the parish church of the small Gozitan village of Zebbug
The triptych of The Filfla Madonna, in the parish church of Zurrieq
The triptych of The Filfla Madonna, in the parish church of Zurrieq
The Virgin of the Rosary, at the Naxxar Parish Church Musuem
The Virgin of the Rosary, at the Naxxar Parish Church Musuem
The St. Thomas panel, at the Zejtun Church Museum
The St. Thomas panel, at the Zejtun Church Museum

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