Malta, a journey through the treasures of art and faith Museum of the Cathedral

The collections of the Mdina Cathedral Museum bear witness to a 2000-year-old Christian tradition.

Entering the Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina in Malta begins a journey through time between art and faith. Collections of statues, paintings, wooden and silverware facts tell and testify to the two thousand year long faith history on this island. Although most Christians do not know Malta as one of the earliest cradles of the Christian faith, Christianity here dates back to the time of the apostles. The Acts of the Apostles tells of Paul’s shipwreck off the northwest coast of Malta while on his way to Rome, where he was facing a lawsuit. The apostle remained on the island for three months and laid the roots of Maltese Christianity.

The Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina is housed in a mid-18th-century baroque building adjacent to the cathedral. The palace itself has been through several events. Until 1858 it hosted the Seminary of Malta, during the Crimean War the British army used it as its headquarters; during World War II it was used as a boarding school. Later it became a retreat house and warehouse as well as a gallery.

The Cathedral Museum – established in 1897 – was opened to the public in 1969. We walk through its premises and collections.

View of the Cathedral of Mdina

Ian Noel Pace | church.mt/photos

The silver statues

The collection of silver statues includes 15 pieces dating back to 1741-1743, made by the Roman silversmith Antonio Arrighi. They were built on the model of them in the Lateran, in Rome, and represent the apostles, John the Baptist, St. Paul and the Virgin. The statues have had a daring history: Confiscated by the French during their period of occupation (1798-1800), they were redeemed for gold and silver twice.

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Silver statue of Saint Paul. The statue is part of a group of 15 silver statues preserved in the Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina

The silver collection

This collection consists of items owned by the Confraternity of the Souls of Purgatory, one of the richest and most prestigious on the island. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Brotherhood ordered several pieces of fine silverware, which are now on display in the museum. Among them is a picture of the Madonna on a wooden pallet, which was shown to the convicts before hanging.

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The throne of the monstrance in solid silver exhibited in the museum of the Cathedral of Mdina

Stephen Barnes / Malta / Alamy Stock Photo | Alamy stock photo

The artistic wooden choir

A special mention deserves the old wooden choir in the cathedral of Mdina. Its history is a dispute between the city council and the chapter of the cathedral in the fifteenth century. Both institutions sought to increase their power by giving gifts to the cathedral church. In that context, the city council donated an artistic choir to the Cathedral, a decision that the bishop opposed. Only the election of the then Dominican prior Pietro Zurchi, as the new major chaplain in the cathedral, managed to resolve the matter: Zurchi obtained the appointment with the approval of the city council and the chapter got the choir. The Dominican prior was a man with a refined artistic taste and had hired the best carvers, the brothers Parisio and Pierantonio Calacura from Catania. The choir was brought to Malta in 1490 and remained in use until 1876.

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Old wooden choir from the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mdina exhibited in the Cathedral Museum

Mario V. Gauci | Mario V. Gauci

The wax collection

Melchiorre Cafà (1636-1667), a Maltese Baroque artist, created figures and reliefs modeled in clay or wax to develop and shape his ideas. The wax reliefs include the Annunciation, the Birth, the Worship of the Shepherds and Skt. Rose of Lima’s glory.

The chapel

A museum in the museum. It is the octagonal chapel inside the cathedral museum. Its false dome consists of eight canvases on which are painted architectural elements and decorative motifs that create the illusion of a baroque dome. The five main paintings in the chapel were commissioned by Bishop Paul Alpheran de Bussan for the court painter Antoine Favray, in 1740, Malta’s most prolific court painter in the Baroque. The main altarpiece depicts the Annunciation, a unique and precious work of art.

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The altar with Favray’s painting in the octagonal chapel inside the Mdina Cathedral Museum

The Dürer collection

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is considered the greatest artist of the German Renaissance. Dürer’s collection of original etchings in the Mdina Cathedral Museum is one of the largest outside Germany. It includes the entire series of “The Life of the Virgin” and the entire collection of “The Little Passion” on copper plates. Other engravings are “San Girolamo in his cell”, “San Cristoforo” and “The Virgin and Child with the Monkey”. Curiosity: there are also four engravings of the Italian swindler Marcantonio Raimondi, who forged Dürer’s signature.

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Albrecht Dürer, “The Virgin and the Child with the Monkey”. The engraving is part of the collection of the Mdina Cathedral Museum

Baroque

The room houses paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, many by artists influenced by Caravaggio, including a painting by Mario Minniti, a friend and student of Caravaggio. Here are also works by Italian artists from the 17th century: works by Mattia Preti and his contemporaries, such as Bottega, Pereria and Giuseppe d’Arena. Opposite, works by Maltese artists from the 18th century such as Francesco Zahra and Antoine Favre, as well as a rare painting by Giuseppe Grech. The hall is dominated by two impressive pieces of furniture: the mezzanine on the organ in the medieval cathedral and the old chancel ceiling. The balcony is completed by Antes, two large paintings that covered the organ. The panels, when open, show St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Annunciation.

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The balcony and the paintings of the Baroque hall of the Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina

Mario V. Gauci | Mario V. Gauci

The cauchi room

Dr. John A Cauchi was an art connoisseur who managed to acquire many fine pieces from auctions and market sales in England, especially after World War II. In 1994, he donated his entire collection to the Cathedral Museum. It includes paintings, furniture and some drawings by ancient masters, but also high quality paintings that come from all over the world.

Marquis room

This room got its name from Count Saverio Marchese, who in the late 19th century donated the large collection that started the museum. It includes a wide range of paintings, old master drawings and engravings. Here are also some of Malta’s most important panel paintings dating back to the 15th century. The room is dominated by St. Paul’s polytykon, an altarpiece commissioned by the chapter of the cathedral from one of the most important art schools in Europe, Luis Borrassa from Cataluña in Spain (1360-1426).

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Saint Paul’s Polytycon in the Marquis Room in the Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina

Alamy stock photo

Numismatic collection

The numismatic collection is the only major coin collection in Malta that is open to the public. Many of these coins are rare and priceless. It is organized into four historical periods: Ancient Malta – Carthaginian, Greek and Roman-Maltese coins along with Roman coins; medieval period – Eastern Roman, Arab, Norman, Swabian, Angevin and Aragonese / Spanish coins; the reign of the Military Order of John in Malta (1530 – 1798); and the period from British rule to the present day.

Jimmy Farrugia Collection

Jimmy Farrugia (1922-2006) was a prominent physician, lay religious leader, politician, President of Parliament and also Malta’s Ambassador to the Holy See. The Maltese artefacts he bequeathed include silverware, furniture, paintings and other artefacts. Farrugia was an expert in Maltese silverware and owned several objects from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including a set of ampoules used by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena and a silver plate with the emblem of the Valettes.

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Part of the Jimmy Farrugia Collection in the Mdina Cathedral Museum

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Dun Karm room

This room is dedicated to Fr. Carmelo Psaila (1871-1961), known as Dun Karm, the Maltese national poet. Some of his personal items are on display in the room: manuscripts, letters, his typewriter and his piano. In 1921 he composed to order some verses on a score by Robert Sammut. That poem has become Innu Malti, the “Maltese hymn”, which takes the form of a prayer to God. The hymn was first sung in 1923 and officially became the national anthem in 1941.

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Dun Karm Hall and Mdina Cathedral Museum

RENE ROSSIGNAUD

The bell tower

The oldest bell in Malta, cast in Venice, is now at the Cathedral Museum after a long career. It is a unique example of a medieval bell, and dates back to 1370. Skt. Paul lifts the sword of victory is embossed on the bell. Three heraldic shields with a lush lion, perhaps the symbol of San Marco, decorate the remaining sides. The bell has a typical medieval musical tone. Visitors can hear the sound at the museum, where it is digitally recorded to preserve it for posterity.

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The old bell is preserved in the Museum of the Cathedral of Mdina

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This content is the result of a collaboration with the Malta Tourist Board (MTA).

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Malta, a journey through the treasures of art and faith

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