A Maltese architectural marvel! Here’s all you need to know about Mdina’s impressive cathedral
"Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders treated us with unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold," - Acts of the Apostles Number 28 verses 1 and 2
According to tradition, the Mdina Cathedral was built on the Acropolitan Citadel of the island, called Melita, where St. Paul converted to Publius, the Roman governor of Malta to Christianity. In fact, the Mdina Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Paul, the Patron of Malta following his providential shipwreck in 60AD.
The early Christians used rural and unnoticed caves to serve as churches and places of worship. However, after the year 313AD when Emperor Constantine the Great gave the freedom to practice Christianity, the site of the present Cathedral was adapted into a Roman church from the Roman Temple dedicated to Juno.
The Roman church remained there till the Byzantine period in Malta (870AD) but unfortunately documentations and evidence of a Byzantine Cathedral Basilika during the Arab occupation in Malta and are completely lost.
The full Christian freedom, the re-Christianization of Malta, the definitive Norman reconquista in 1127 and the forced expulsion of the Muslims in 1249 by Fredrick II, all led to the building of a new cathedral.
Columns and capitals of the cathedral, possibly from around the mid-thirteenth century can be seen inside the Cathedral Museum. This version of the Mdina cathedral was enlarged and modified during the early fifteenth and sixteenth century.
We are now able to understand how this medieval cathedral was laid out due to the planimetry exhibited inside the sacristy, which was similar to the one found in Cefalu Sicily.
The earthquake which struck Mdina on January 11, 1693 prompted the occasion to rebuild a new Cathedral. Built on a Latin-cross plan, the Mdina Cathedral embodies the architectural credentials of the prototypical early roman baroque church, which is based on De Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae, published in 1577 by Saint Charles Borromeo. The Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà took careful attention to calculate the space defined by using the roman academic distribution of enclosure planes. These are marked by their controlled gravity and solemnity, and by their careful balance of vertical and horizontal features which are epitomised in the monumental hemisphere of the dome.
The façade is cleanly divided into three bays by pilasters of Corinthian and Composite orders. The central bay is set forward, and it contains the main doorway, which is surmounted by the coats of arms of the city of Mdina, Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful and Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri, all of which were sculpted by Giuseppe Darmanin.
Lorenzo Gafà projected a bold entablature which runs uninterruptedly along the cruciform, thereby visually unifying the Latin cross of the church. The church’s latitudinal projections, arranged on double based pilasters support an attic space beneath the ribbed vault. The latter illustrates some of the main biblical scenes on the life of Saint Paul in Malta.
These framed depictions, technically known as quadri riportati were painted directly on the ceiling by the Sicilian brothers Antonio and Vincenzo Manno in 1794. The Manno brothers used a cool palette in order to create a convincing daylight effect.
The painted scenes with figures that appear to be rising into a shimmering bluish sky, showcase an overall depiction resembling the neoclassical and romantic style. The intimate dialogues between the portrayed figures and dramatic vitality of movement together with their light palette, all harken back to the works of Annibale Carracci in Palazzo Farnese in Rome.
The area around the altar, otherwise known as the presbytery is demarcated from the rest of the church and is adorned with the main altar which is made from a selection of fine marbles. During the main feasts the altar is embilisshed with silver candlesticks and a set of fifteen silver statuettes. They were casted by the renowned Roman baroque silversmith Antonio Arrighi.
Standing freely are two monumentally carved lecterns in Carrara marble, representing the Saint Luke and Saint John. These works were sculpted by the Sicilian artist Giuseppe Valenti, a central figure in the production of sculptural monuments towards the end of the 19th century in Malta. Their powerful imprint delivered through their whiteness and classical idiom renders the presbytery that much more sublime.
Apart from all the impressive artworks, the Cathedral is home to the ecclesiastical jewel that is the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The small 13th century icon illustrating Our Lady and Child and an adorning altar right underneath the icon, dominate the entire chapel. The overall mid - 18th century designs of the chapel were entrusted to the local artist Francesco Zahra truly showed his masterly talents in architecture, decoration, dome painting and in mixing up the rich colour schemes of the entire chapel. The work of the intarsio pavement was carried out by Claudio Durante, for which he used prime quality marbles in form of garlands, scrolls and all sort of baroque floral motifs.
The altar has a single gradine which was broken at its centre in order to make space for a large free-standing silver baroque tabernacle. The multi-coloured marble floor is also dominated by the tombstone of three bishops, including Fra Davide Cocco Palmeri, the bishop who built the present cathedral.
Over one hundred and sixty tombstones form a uniquely colourful marble floor, all of which are considered a national heritage of artistic beauty and symbolism. Throughout the history of the cathedral, master craftsmen were commissioned to work on these monumental tombstones in order to commemorate the life of the bishops and monsignors after giving their service at the cathedral. Some of the marble in the choir area was brought from the Roman ruins of Carthage and Melite.
St Paul’s Cathedral remains a symbol of grand symbol Mdina's marvel! Situated in the very centre of the medieval city, this monumental building symbolised God’s Omnipotence. It captivates visitors to come and appreciate its splendour because of its beautiful architecture, stained glass windows and counts.
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