St. Paul Cathedral, a gem in the fortified city of Mdina
Dating back to the 17th century, this church is dedicated to St. Paul, believed to have been shipwrecked on the island in 60AD and laid the foundations for Christianity here. It was built on the remains of a Norman cathedral that dates back to medieval time that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. The Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà was entrusted with the plan to rebuild the church that was completed and consecrated in 1703.
Many of the furnishings and decorations of the old cathedral were reused for the new one: this is the case of the baptismal font, dating from the 15th century; the 16th century portal and of the paintings by Mattia Preti, among which his famous Conversion of Saint Paul stands behind the main altar. The Cathedral is the metaphoric mother of all Maltese churches, and it is also the seat of the Maltese archbishop.
Let’s go to discover the Cathedral of Mdina
1) The external facade
The church has a well-proportioned facade with three bays on two stories crowned by a triangular pediment. It has two belfries with five bells and two clocks, one showing the time and the other showing the day and month, both date back to 1888. Over the main door, you can notice three arms: one of bishop Cocco Palmeri, one of Grandmaster Perellos and one of Malta.
2) The nave
The cathedral’s interior is in the shape of a Latin cross, with a large central nave and two aisles, on which 10 enclosed chapels are located. The first thing that stands out when you enter the Cathedral is the floor, composed of 300 tombstones with the graves of nobles and religious. The flooring areas in the cathedral reserved for bishops are the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the two transepts, the Chapel of the Annunciation and the chapel of St Publius. All tombstones have Latin Inscriptions except the one of the late Archbishop Emeritus Bishop Giuseppe Mercieca, which is in Maltese. Other essential works flanking the main door are a statue of St Publius and the baptismal font.
3) The ceiling
The cathedral ceiling is covered with frescoes and paintings by the Sicilian artists Vincenzo and Antonio Manno, depicting the life of Saint Paul. Adorning the roof are three stained glass windows depicting The Baptism of St Paul, The Immaculate Conception and St Joseph.
4) The Chancel and Choir
The high altar is decorated with lapis lazuli and other precious marbles. On the side of the chancel stands the Bishops’ throne. Two marble lecterns depicting St. John and St. Luke are placed in front of the high altar. An interesting item of the Chancel salvaged from the old Cathedral is the marble mensa, which covers the top of the top-front of the altar. During the main feasts, the altar is decorated by a beautiful silver frontal and fifteen silver statues representing the twelve Apostles, St Paul, St John and Our lady.
The Choir was constructed by the architect Lorenzo Gafà (17th century) and survived the earthquake of 1693, and it was decorated by Mattia Preti (17th century). The best Preti’s works in the choir are Miracle of the Viper, the Healing of Publius’ Father and the Conversion of St. Paul on his way to Damascus. The choir stalls are another remain from the old Cathedral, and some of them date back to the fifteenth century. On top of the apse, one can find the coat of arms of the Spanish Royal Family as a memoir to Emperor Charles V, who gifted Malta to the Order of St. John in the year 1530.
5) The Dome
Mario Caffaro Rore of Turin painted the Dome that depicts The triumph of St Peter and St Paul.
The cathedral also features 5 important monuments: a bronze statue dedicated to Archbishop Michael Gonzi (1944-1978), a monument dedicated to Bishop Carmelo Scicluna (1875-1888), a monument dedicated to Bishop Francesco Saverio Caruana (1831-1847), a monument dedicated to Publio Maria Sant (1847-1857) and a monument to Cardinal Fabrizio Sceberras Testaferrata (1757-1843).
7) Chapels on the left side
- Chapel of Pentecost
The altarpiece depicts The descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the Blessed Virgin (1880 by Francesco Grandi). Grandi paints the lunettes that describe The baptism of Christ by st john, the baptists and The apostles starting their mission to evangelise.
Chapel of Virgin and the Guardian Angel
The altarpiece depicts “The Madonna and the Guardian Angel” with a view of Valletta and the two harbours (by Pietro Gagliardi). The marble altar is flanked by the coat of arms of the Maltese Castelletti Family, whereas the floor carries the tombs of the noble Inguanez family.
The present sacristy, with its ribbed and coffered vault, has survived the 1693 earthquake. Its focal point is the altar with a fine painting of the”deposition of Christ from the cross” by Bartolomeo Garagona (17th century). The various paintings that adorn the sacristy include Alessio Erardi (17th century) works and Mattia Preti (17th century).
The chapel of the Annunciation
The chapel houses a marvellous altarpiece depicting “The Annunciation of the Virgin” created by Domenico Bruschi of Perugia in 1886. Its marble altar carries the arms of Bishop Carmelo Scicluna. The Chapel also features the painting of St Paul conquering the Moor by Mattia Preti and his workshop (17th century. This work was inspired by a famous Maltese legend, in which St. Paul is believed to have appeared on the bastions of Mdina atop a white steed during a Moor invasion in 1429.
- The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
This Chapel is an excellent work of art in marble and silver with paintings by Francesco Zahra (18th century). It’s dedicated to Our Lady, who is represented in an antique Byzantine icon (14th century) depicting the Madonna and child, also known as Madonna of St Luke. The Blessed Sacrament is kept in a silver tabernacle and is adorned by a silver throne dating back to the 18th century (by Annetto Pullicino). There are artistic tombstones of Bishops on the floor, whereas the dome and the lunettes present episodes of the holy eucharist by Francesco Zahra.
8) Chapels on the right side
- The Chapel of the Holy Crucifix
Enclosed by a large gilded wooden gate, the chapel features a miraculous wooden statue of the Holy Crucifix carved by Fra Innocenzo da Petralia of Sicily and donated by Bishop Camarasa in 1648. The Statues of Our Lady of Sorrows and St. John the Evangelist flanks the Holy Crucifix and are made from polychromed wood. The Chapel floor is inlaid marble and was designed by the Maltese architect Francesco Zahra in 1765 and executed by Maestro Claudio Durante. The chapel is also where the Saint of Malta, San Gorg Preca, often prayed before he found the Society of Christian Doctrine.
- The Chapel of St Publius
The Chapel’s altarpiece depicts the “Martyrdom of St Publius” by Mattia Preti’s Bottega, so as the painting on the right wall depicting “The baptism of Publius by St Paul”. The altar, made of marble, carries the coat of arms of Bishop Gori Mancini surmounted by the blazon of Grand Master Zondadari. In contrast, the bay next to the chapel contains a monument to Bishop Carmelo Scicluna by the sculptor Moschetti of Catania.
- The Chapel of St Cajetan
This is the Chapel of the Sciberras Bologna Family who have their burial vault in the crypt under the Chapel. The altarpiece depicts “St Cajetan receiving the Child Jesus” by Mattia Preti’s Bottega. The Chapel also features a monument commemorating the Maltese cardinal Fabrizio Sciberras Testaferrata.
- The chapel of St Luke
The Chapel is dedicated to St Luke, a companion of St Paul during his three-month stay after being shipwrecked on Malta. The Chapel’s altarpiece represents St Luke sitting on a stool depicting an image of the Blessed Virgin (by the workshop of Mattia Preti). An old tradition says he left in Malta an image of the Madonna.
|Need to know|
Opening time: Monday to Saturday 9.30 – 17; Sunday 15-17.
Ticket: It includes the Museum (on the right side, in front of the cathedral) and costs 10 euro.