Friday 23 August 2013

A late medieval chapel points east

Some notes on this delightful little chapel on Binġemma ridge, overlooking the ancient village of Mġarr, on the northern part of Malta. The photos were taken with my old Blackberry six months ago on the 24th of February 2013:

Figure 1: View of the village of Mġarr in Malta, the 
counterpart to the Mġarr in Gozo (Mġarr is derived from 
the Arabic word meaning "place where things are carried 

The original chapel was built around 1600 by a Giovanni Maria Xara on Binġemma ridge overlooking Bronze Age tombs east of the chapel [1].  
This chapel was adorned with a single stone altar, above which was an icon of Our Lady of Constantinople. The annual feast day of Our Lady was celebrated on the third Sunday after Pentecost, the bronze bell calling out to the farmers and herdsmen who lived and worked in the surrounding area. The heirs of Giovanni Maria Xara were obliged to maintain the chapel but it fell into disuse in 1658. In 1680, Giovanni's grandson the Baron Stanislaw Xara who was responsible for the defense of Mdina between 1671 and 1673 (as "Captain of the Rod") decided to further develop the chapel, siting the new building some yards away from the original.
Figure 2: Our Lady of the Way chapel rebuilt by Baron 
Stanislaw Xara around 1680. 
Our Lady of Itria as the chapel is known locally, Itria being the Italianised versiion of Hodegetria (Greek: ὉδηγήτριαRussian: Одигитрия) literally: She who shows the Way; is an depicted iconographically as the Blessed Virgin who holds and points to the Child Jesus at her side [1].
Figure 3: Icon of Our Lady of the Way. This beautiful 
Polish example came into the possession of the author's 
family in 1997. 

Several chapels were devoted to the Hodegetria, including the Greek chapel located at the Greek door in Mdina. The Binġemma example is the only chapel to retain the devotion in Malta 1].   
The prototype icon was originally displayed at the Monastery of the Panagia Hodegetria in Constantinople which was built specifically to house it. Unlike most later copies it showed the Blessed Virgin standing full length. It was said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by Eudocia, the Empress of Theodosius II (408-450) and to have been painted by Saint Luke. The icon was double-sided, with a crucifixion on the other side and was "perhaps the most prominent object of veneration in Byzantium [2] [3].
The original icon appears to have been lost, although various traditions claim that it was carried to Russia or Italy. There are a great number of copies of the image,  which have themselves acquired their own status and tradition of copying [3].
The chapel remains a living community served by the ecclesiastical community of St.Agatha in Rabat, a few miles north of Binġemma. 
The Punic burial site only a stone's throw away has been dated to between B.C. 3,800 and 3,600. A Greek cross on one of the tombs suggests that the community living in the area were practicing Christians. As the cross in question is regular in shape (it is not an early Constantinian cross or Chi Rho monogram), it was probably inscribed sometime after the Peace of the Church in A.D. 314 [4] 
The  Peace of the Church is a reference to the period immediately after the Edict of Milan in 313 by the two Augusti, western Roman Emperor Constantine I and his eastern counterpart Licinius, which accorded Christians the liberty to practice their religion without state interference [5].

[1] Kapelli Maltin 
[2] Vasilakē, Maria. Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, p. 196, Ashgate publishing Co, Burlington, Vermont, ISBN 0-7546-3603-8 (accessed via Wikipedia website titled Hodegetria) 
[3] Cormack, Robin (1997). Painting the Soul; Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds. Reaktion Books, London. p. 58 (accessed via Wikipedia website titled Hodegetria).
[4] Buhagiar M (1998). Four new late Roman and Early Byzantine sites on the island of Malta (accessed 24th August 2013)
[5]  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Peace of the Church". Catholic Encyclopedia

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