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Your Guide to Malta and Gozo - Collegiate Church of St. Lawrence

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Collegiate Church of St. Lawrence

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It was Don Felipe de Guevara who in 1508 spearheaded the construction of a church in Birgu in honour of St.Lawrence to replace the humble San Lorenzo a Mare chapel. This Church would be commandeered by the Knights on their arrival in Malta to whom it served as their conventual church until 1571. Calamity befell this church on Easter Monday 1532 as fire broke out and destroyed many of the artistic treasures within. The restoration of the church commenced almost immediately resulting in a grander church with a dome more befitting of the building's status. This was again demolished in 1681 when the construction of the present church commenced on the design of Lorenzo Gafa'. Bishop Fra Michele Gerolamo Molina laid the foundation stone of the new church on 11th May 1681. The church was completed by 1697 and inaugurated by Bishop Davide Cocco Palmieri that same year. It was consecrated on October 24th 1723 by Bishop Baldassare Gori Mancini and declared a Collegiate by Pope Pius VII in 1820. The dome was destroyed in the blitz of 4th April, 1942 and rebuilt in 1952.

The façade bears limestone sculptures of St. Paul and St. Lawrence by Maltese sculptor Vincenzo Dimech.

The magnificent altarpiece is a monumental work by Mattia Preti that represents the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. Two paintings in the choir depict the Martyrdom of St. Andrew. Interestingly, the one on the right is erroneously labelled as The Martyrdom of St. Erasimus.

The early 17th century altarpiece in the Holy Trinity Chapel painted by an unidentified master shows God the Father holding the lifeless body of Jesus as the Holy Spirit, shown stereotypically as a white dove hovers in the background. The Trinity is flanked by winged angelic beings. The twin Christian martyrs from third century Greece St. Cosmas and St. Damien stand in the foreground. 

St. Peter, St. Mark and St. Matthew together with other Apostles are shown around the tomb of the Virgin Mary, as she ascends to Heaven. Set within a niche nearby is a statue of St. Roque sculpted by Giovanni Darmanin in 1879. Opposite this is a painting of the Madonna of Lourdes by Carlo Ignazio Cortis.

A work that may be attributed to Stefano Erardi is the altarpiece of the Chapel of St. Joseph. Joseph is shown here leading Mary who riding on donkey back and holding the infant Jesus as they flee Herod's wrath to their safe haven in Egypt. Within this chapel are also oval paintings of unknown origin, depicting St. Philomena and St. Francis Xavier.

To the right hand side of the main door is a statue of the Immaculate Conception set within a niche. Above this is a painting showing Christ the Saviour by Erardi. This is believed to be a copy of an original by Guido Reni. To the left of the side door is a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, set within a mahogany niche.

The Chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria is located to the right of the side door. The altarpiece here is by Rocco Buhagiar and is a copy of an Annibale Caracci work showing the Mystical Wedding of St. Catherine. St. Catherine is here shown with the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus on her lap with St. Anthony kneeling behind them and a choir of angels in the background. Lunettes within this chapel show salient episodes from the life of St. Catherine. The statue of St. Catherine is by local sculptor Giuseppe Vella and dates from 1850. Above the statue of St.Catherine is a painting by Filippo Paladini shadowing a trio of saints: St. Roque, St. Paul and St. Sebastian – these three saints were reputed to stave off the Plague.

 

Opposite the sacristy door within the Chapel of Our Lady of Charity is painting by Erardi, depicting two angels mourning the dead Jesus. The altarpiece in this chapel is possibly a work from the bottega of Mattia Preti and represents the Miracle at the Wedding at Cana in which Jesus is said to have offset an embarrassing shortage of wine at the celebration by mysteriously transforming ordinary water into superior-quality wine. The altar here is decorated with a bust of Christ crowned with thorns.

Within the Chapel of the Crucifix is the much revered Crucifix of Candia that was brought to Malta in 1657, following the Battle of the Dardanelles.

The titular statue is of Spanish origin, but the identity of the artist is unknown. It pre-dates the arrival of the Knights in Malta. The silver plinth on which it stands was made in Italy in 1903 and is adorned with four statuettes created by Abram Gatt, allegorically representing the qualities of Faith, Hope, Charity and Purity. There are also Coats of arms of the four cities in the Cottonera area: Birgu, Bormla, Isla and Kalkara.

The paintings on the vaulted ceiling depict episodes from the life of St. Lawrence. Each of the stained glass windows bears the eight-pointed cross. Flanking each window are two figures. There are a total of 19 such figures, representing the 18 grandmasters that ruled over Malta and Count Roger. These were created by Carlo Ignazio Cortis in 1896. Also by Cortis are the four lunettes beneath the main dome, depicting the four Evangelists.