This article was published in the Times of Malta of 30 August 2015 by Mr. Lino Bugeja.
On the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege, the popular feast of St Dominic celebrated in Vittoriosa on the last Sunday in August at the church of the Annunciation, popularly known as Il-Lunzjata, will be celebrated with greater poignancy and devotion.
During the epic siege, this iconic church run by the Dominican friars was the acknowledged parish church of Birgu, where the besieged citizens and hundreds of refugees from outlying villages sought spiritual and material refuge during the continuous battering from the Turkish armada. It was from Il-Lunzjata that parish priest Fra Filippo De Guevara and the succesor of the first Dominican prior Fr Andrea de Gaudisio, assisted by their priests, administered the sacraments to the sick and wounded on the battlements of the walled city.In the present beautifully reconstructed church there is a copy of the painting The Virgin Suckling the Child, an Italo-Byzantine painting first recorded in the Dominican church in Birgu in 1538, having been transferred from the rock-cut church of the Nativity at the Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo).
It was a cult object after the siege when the victory over the Ottoman Empire was attributed to its miraculous intercession. It perished in the terrible blitz of January 19, 1941, and its copy is carried processionally to St Lawrence parish church, former conventual church of the Order on September 8 as a sign of thanksgiving and devotion. The only photograph of this celebrated icon exists in the Italian book by Aldo Farina entitled Malta – Piccola Isola della Grande Storia (1926).
It is recorded in the annals of the Dominican community in Vittoriosa that in 1567 the chapel of the Nativity in Il-Lunzjata was maintained by Giovanni Carlo d’Avola, a Maltese corsair who distinguished himself in the Great Siege. In the church there were other notable chapels erected by the opulent Rhodian community residing in Birgu, in particular a chapel and an effigy dedicated to the Risen Christ, a feast the Rhodian community celebrated with their typical vibrancy.
At that time, Birgu attracted several Sicilian painters including Girolomo Spagnuolo who was commissioned by the Mego family to paint several chapels. Vittoriosa still treasures one of his paintings, The Candlemas Madonna, found at the cloistered nunnery of Santa Scolastica.
The Dominicans arrived in Malta from Sicily in 1450, presumably on the initiative of Fr Pietro Zurchi, a Maltese friar from Mdina attached to the vast Dominican priory in Sicily. Like other religious orders before them, they set up their fortress-like church and convent in Rabat as far as possible from the frequent incursions of the Barbary pirates. The commendable reputation and rectitude of the Dominican friars in the Rabat area is confirmed by the invitation made to them on October 12, 1527, to consider the opportunity of opening another church in the old maritime city of Birgu.
It is also recorded that the promptings of the harbour master of Porto delle Galere (Dockyard Creek), Antonio d’Armenia, who lived in Birgu and whose son was a Dominican friar in Rabat, were instrumental for the Dominicans to establish a second convent in the thriving maritime city.
The parish priest of San Lorenzo-a-Mare, Fra Filippo de Guevara, enthusiastically confirmed this offer from the active Confraternity of the Annunciation and publicly declared it would be a great honour for the city to receive the friars “a source of great spiritual benefit”. On February 4, 1528, the Dominicans took possession of the Il-Lunzjata church, built in 1450.
Recently revealed documents suggest that the Dominicans were fully aware of the possible imminent coming of the Order of St John to Birgu, an auspicious event that occurred in October 1530. The Knights immediately proclaimed San Lorenzo-a-Mare as their conventual church and endowed it with artistic objets d’art and reliquaries, among which was Our Lady of Philermos. Consquently Il-Lunzjata emerged as the new parish church serving a prosperous community, especially the large Rhodian community who had accompanied the Knights to Malta. The community was especially attached to the Dominican church even though it was also served by three Byzantine chapels, namely those of Our Lady of Damascus, St George and St Nicholas; the first two survived the ravages of time and war.
Four years after the siege, as the building of the new city of Valletta was in full swing, from their prosperous base in Vittoriosa the Dominicans ventured to pastures new by establishing a priory in the new city in 1569 with the official title of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, which in 1571 was raised to the status of a parish for all the residents of Valletta. The saintly Pope Pius V of the Dominican Order offered every assistance for the building of the priory as well as for the coffers of the order after the epic victory.
Meanwhile, in the Vittoriosa priory, bold innovations were taking place by which the maintenance of the various chapels in the church became the responsibility of the confraternities and private owners; for example, the Confraternity of the Annunciation was responsible for the high altar polyptych of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus.
In the early 17th century the Dominicans decided to demolish the old medieval church, which had experienced many cumbersome and unaesthetic modifications. On June 23, 1638, the foundation stone was laid by Inquisitor Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII, and remained attached to the Dominicans and the city of Vittoriosa.
The new church built in the Corinthian style was renowned for its architectural innovations with its elegant columns and a wide nave. Nothing was spared; no expense was too great to make the new church of Il-Lunzjata, which I fondly remember, an artistic gem with priceless paintings from the previous centuries. These included paintings by famous artists and artisans of the 19th and early 20th centuries by Giuseppe Cali and Lazzaro Pisani. So refined was the artistic milieu of the Dominican priory that a wooden statue of Our Lady of the Rosary made by Vincenzo Bonnici in 1864 was awarded the coveted gold medal at the Industrial Exhibition.
As the Dominicans in Vittoriosa celebrate their festa with great devotion and decorations, I feel immersed in deep, bitter nostalgia evoking the great historic and artistic treasures completely lost in the savage German blitz of January 19, 1941. The ornate main nave with the delicate paintings by Pisani, the sacristy and most of the priory were razed to the ground.
Two weeks later, after heavy rains, the magnificent dome which had just been artistically decorated by Italian artist Gian Battista Conti, collapsed, and two whole years of exceptional artistic work disappeared before even seeing the light of day. Fortunately the artistic statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, the artistic silver pedestal made for the processional statue of St Dominic to the design and supervision of master craftsman Giuseppe Decelis in 1903, and the ornate inlaid platform with exquisite symbols, were rescued from under the debris. Regretfully the Dominican community was forced to leave their beloved convent in Vittoriosa for the safety of the inner villages.
The Dominican community returned to war-ravaged Vittoriosa in December 1942, virtually homeless but resolute to assist their beloved city in all its spiritual and physical needs. The huge Inquisitor’s Palace became their temporary home and convent for over 10 years.
In March 1943, three friars, namely Fr Ambrose Darmanin, Fr Philip Mallia and Fr David Buhagiar assisted in the reopening of Vittoriosa primary school, which had closed its doors in May 1940.
The friars had to grapple not only with the immediate rebuilding of their devastated church and convent but also with government authorities intent on road-widening, with the result that the medieval campanile, which had survived the blitz, was demolished. This was an important architectural landmark which had inspired the great Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who resided in Birgu.
The new priory was completely rebuilt in 1954 with an impressive architecturally pleasant cloister, evoking peace and tranquility far from the madding crowds. The church was completed in August 1960 from where the Dominican tradition of excellent pastoral service has continued uninterruptedly till the present day.
Compatible with their refined artistic tastes, the Dominicans are endowing their new church with beautiful paintings, first commissioning Envin Cremona, who painted the impressive altarpiece of the Annunciation and the deeply religious canvas of Our Lady of the Rosary, considered to be among Cremona’s best works. On festa day the new dynamic statue of St Dominic by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi takes pride of place on its precious silver pedestal.