The Metropolitan Cathedral
Triq Santu Rokku Mdina; tel:+356 2145 4136
Open Mon-Fri 09.00am -16.30pm, Sat 09.00am-15.30pm; Tickets: Eur 5.00, Students Eur3.50. Tickets must be purchased before Visiting the Cathedral from the Cathedral's Museum.
In 1679, Bishop Gerolamo Molina decided to renovate the choir of the mediaeval cathedral that stood on the site on which the Mdina Cathedral stands today. The design of the new choir, the construction of which took three years, was entrusted to Lorenzo Gafa', who also produced plans for a new cathedral. Mattia Preti endowed it with a magnificent fresco representing Paul's unscheduled stop in Malta. This fresco was the recipient of a number of restorative attempts – disastrous amongst which was the intervention by Salvatore Micallef in 1728 which saw considerable swathes of the Preti work being painted over.The stylistic dissonance between the newly erected choir and the rest of the church building soon became evident, and a need to augment the new choir with a building withwhich it would be more in tune was underscored.
A calamitous earthquake devastated Sicily in 1693. The death toll approached 100,000 and the city of Catania was completely wiped out. Buildings in Malta suffered considerable structural damage but the island was largely spared the worst and no deaths were registered. This was attributed to the direct intervention of St. Paul. Whilst the old building was probably salvageable, the earthquake provided the perfect excuse for the demolition of the old structure and the erection of a new cathedral. What had already been on the cards suddenly became a priority.
The dismantling of the old building commenced on 2nd May 1693. The construction of the church was virtually complete by 1700, save for the dome which was in place by 1705.
Whilst working on site on April 12th1698, Ignazio Parnis dug up a vessel containing 8733 scudi worth of gold coins. This was considered providential, as the coffers of the cathedral were running rather dry. The grandmaster however, laid claim to the money and it was only after arbitration from Rome that the ecclesiastical authorities received a share of 4743 scudi
The imposing new structure did not blend in well with the narrow streets and alleyways of Mdina.
In 1716 a house that was acquired from the Testaferrata family was demolished and a street flanking it was expropriated to create a square more befitting of the Cathedral's massive dimensions.
What to See
The frescoes on the dome by Vincenzo and Antonio Manno depicting episodes from the life of St. Paul would be replaced in 1860 by other frescoes by Giuseppe Gallucci, whilst the Glory of St. Peter and Saint Paul, by Mario Caffaro Rore is the theme of the 20th Century paintings on canvas that in turn replaced them.
Canon Antonio Testaferrata contributed the Mattia Preti altarpiece depicting Paul on his way to Damascus. The startled, humbled exterminator of Christians is shown having fallen off his horse and suffering instantaneous albeit temporary blindness as Jesus, surrounded by angelic beings sits on a cloud in the heavens and converts him to the faith. This painting is flanked by two other works from the bottega of Mattia Preti, representing the the head-down crucifixion of Peter and the beheading of St. Paul respectively. Canon Testaferrata contributed further bottega paintings showing salient episodes in Paul's stay in Malta and his purported, posthumous interaction with the island, as follows:
- Paul Healing Publius's Father
- The Mircacle of the Viper, showing Paul shaking off a poisonous serpent into the fire. The locals expected him to “swell up and die”, yet he miraculously survived.
- The Baptism of Publius, in Chapel of St. Publius
- St. Paul Defending Malta from the Moors. This is a reference to a devastating attack by raiders from Tunisia which saw some 4000 locals taken into slavery. Legend has it that during this raid, the Saint appeared riding a white stallion. This is located in the Announciation transept.
- The Maryrdom of St. Publius
St. Luke flanked by four mitred saints sits at his easel, painting a Madonna and Child as the Virgin cradles baby Jesus in the Heavens in an altarpiece in the style of Preti, located in the corresponding aisle-chapel; whilst a prayerful St. Cajetan kneels before the Virgin in the altarpiece – again in Mattia Preti fashion – in the aisle-chapel dedicated to him.
Other paintings with Mattia Preti overtones are located in the sacristies: in the Caligares sacristy is to be found a painting showing The Guardian Angel with the Blessed Trinity; whilst St. Paul is shown Ordaining Publius to the Priesthood in a further painting by an unknown artist, in the inner sacristy. On the sacristy altar is a bronze crucifix, possibly by Alessandro Algardi.
In the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix is an older wooden crucifix by Innocenzo da Petralia Soprano (1592-1648), a Franciscan friar from Sicily. This was donated to the Cathedral by Bishop Fra Miguel Juan Balaguer y Camarasa. The other decorations in this chapel are largely by Francesco Zahra. Also by Zahra are most of the decorations in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, including the ornate silver frame of the Madonna and Child, attributed to St. Luke. Below this painting is a solid silver tabernacle, donated by Bishop Paul Alpheran de Bussan.
Located below the nave is the Bishops' Crypt, a vaulted chamber that was used until the early 1970's.
In a small chapel-like chamber, the sarcophagus on the northern wall contains the remains of five bishops whose burial sites were disturbed during the building of the new cathedral; the one on the Southern wall contains the remains of Bishop de Bussan. Below some of the side chapels are private crypts serving as the final resting place of important aristocratic families. Importantly, the crypt beneath the Chapel of St. Cajetan holds the bodies of Lord Gerald Strickland, Prime Minister of Malta and his daughter Mabel.
Items From Old Cathedral
Some items from the mediaeval Cathedral have survived: the elaborate marble baptismal font adorned with bas reliefs is a 15th century piece, donated by Bishop Jaymo de Valguarnera. What used to be the old Cathedral's intricate main door with bas reliefs of St. Peter and St. Paul now opens into the sacristy. The marble high altar is another relic from the old cathedral.
The decoration on the ceiling of the Chapters Hall is an oil-on-canvas work by Zahra, and shows St. Paul in Heaven, surrounded by allegories of the virtues of the Holy Spirit.