29 August 2005
The ferry was brilliant – very fast and a nice, calm day. Arrived at Valletta mid-morning on 25th August and there was Rose right by the harbour. We’d never met, nor had I seen a photograph, but I recognised her immediately. She jumped into the car and directed me back to her house for some lunch.
It was great to be made so welcome, I’d been feeling lonely for the past few days. Rose is a real Goddess woman with a big heart. It was also wonderful to meet her husband, Fernando, who is a talented musician, also six-year-old Adriel – who didn’t realise at this point that he was hardly going to see his mother for the next three days as we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the island.
I’m told you either love Malta or hate it. I loved it. I couldn’t tell one city or town from the next – to me they all blended into one big one. But it was lovely to drive on the left for a few days (although the drivers are almost as insane as in Italy) and not to get lost quite as often.
Rose knew of my interest in Madonnas, especially dark ones, and in the afternoon we went straight to Rabat to see the Madonna Tal-Ghar (Madonna of the Grotto) – there are two, the one in the church being a reproduction of the older one in the crypt. She is reputed to be a Black Madonna because of the red and brown streaked marble used to make her. The reproduction madonna is said to have wept tears of blood in the past; the woman who helped us to find the crypt couldn’t understand why we weren’t interested in the more famous madonna.
Unfortunately, the crypt was locked and we couldn’t get in. Frustratingly, we could see her through a barred hatch in the floor and I tried to get a photograph. Rose did better, with me virtually hanging onto her ankles she managed to wriggle into a better position. Well, she is almost exactly half my age!
Here she is, to the left. The blue colour is due to the lighting in the crypt.
We also photographed a virgin found in the grotto of St Paul in Rabat (which was apparently once a Roman prison) but none of the images worked well enough to put online. We did, however, spot this caryatid (right) in the grotto – one of two holding up an altar/table. On to the catacombs – first St Paul’s – there are odd circular shapes cut into horizontal stones that suggest a labyrinth form, unfortunately, again, none of the images would show up well. Some research done on the internet just now tells me that archeologists say these are “agape tables” – where, reclining like Romans, the people would hold funeral feasts. I’ve added in a photo from Wikimedia commons, below:
Most extraordinary, I thought, was the 12th century madonna fresco in the catacomb of St Agatha, which for some reason has a hole cut right through the top of it. One of the guides tried to convince us that the painting was deliberately made that way.
A fairly rare image (left) the madonna is breast-feeding. If the vandalism had been deliberate, I would expected the church to have removed this sight from our view – the way the hole has been cut looks for all the world like somebody just went at the wall with a hammer and chisel from the other side, without checking to see what might be there.
What’s left of the image (left) includes something possibly painted even earlier, but it was hard to make out. It looked almost like an early Celtic style, possibly depicting snakes.
I did spot a dark Madonna hidden in a niche – and took a terrible photograph, very unlike me to only take one (right). I’ll blame the heat!
St Agatha, you may recall, is one of the virgin martyrs – a Sicilian by birth, she was imprisoned there in a brothel by one wicked Quintianus who wished to have his way with her. I was fascinated to read later that the brothel-keeper was called Aphrodisia. Agatha resisted all temptation for thirty days, following which Quintianus had her subjected to torture, not only the rack but also crushing and cutting off her breasts. Agatha is credited with stopping an eruption of Mount Etna on Sicily, and is revered in Malta as she is thought to have interceded to prevent a Turkish invasion in the sixteenth century.
I think she is actually Artemis – and the hatred of the patriarchs meant her breasts had to be torn off (think of the Artemis/Diana of Ephesus statue, with all the breasts.) Next stop was the Cathedral in Mdina. This is a fascinating, ancient city – it can trace its origins back some 4,000 years. The streets are very narrow, too much so for cars, which is great. In the cathedral we found a very dark Madonna, here she is below – a tiny shot, but I couldn’t get any closer to her. The cathedrals and major churches in Malta are rich and ornate, which to me seems to keep the power, the saints, the spirituality, even, away from the people. Black Madonnas in particular, I think, belong entirely to the people and by removing them to such a distance they don’t have the powerful effect – at least on me.
Right at the top of this entry is the view over the Mdina Bastion; you can see all the way to the coast, (well, nothing is very far away from anything else in Malta!)