Tuesday 20 August 2013

Icon and motif [part 1]

The dominant motif in the votive art collection of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa is the Blessed Virgin and Child Jesus "in the clouds of glory". This is true, irrespective of whether the supplicant experienced mortal peril at sea or on land [1] [2].

My firm favourite is the very attractive and unique niche painting of a crowned Blessed Virgin standing atop the crescent moon with serpent beneath her feet, heavenly host in the background. Provenance is attributed to a certain farmer from the village of Naxxar, whose wife and daughter almost perished when the horse drawing their cart in the vicinity of Aħrax tal-Mellieħa suddenly bolted and made for the cliff edge. The farmer prayed to the Blessed Virgin whereupon the horse stopped right at the edge. The painting has been dated to circa 1733. The coat of arms of Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) and Bishop De Bussan (1728-1757) are visible at bottom left and right.

The ruins of the original niche were still in situ in the late 1980s but have since been carted away. The painting itself can be viewed in the Sanctuary [3].

Figure 1: Oils on wood.
Niche painting of the
Blessed Virgin.
The end of the 18th Century and start of the 19th was a tumultuous period in Malta. In a span of two years, the island was governed by three different administrations. The ousting of the Knights Hospitallers in 1798 by Napoleon and the subsequent capitulation of the French garrison under General Vaubois two years later, took its toll on civil society. Trade and a sense of normality resumed only after the island was ceded to the British Crown (Article 10 of the Treaty of Amiens laid down the conditions of return to the Order of St John but such were never complied with owing to internal disarray of the Order).

Nonetheless by 1813, the well regulated quarantine system was breached and an epidemic of the plague ensued. More than 3,000 deaths were reported between 4th May and the 19th August, a third of whom were inhabitants of Valletta. The villages of Birkirkara, Qormi and Zebbug were particularly affected but we are told outlying areas such as Gozo and Mellieħa largely escaped [4].

As the votive art from the period suggests, the Blessed Virgin was once again uplifting souls and healing the sick. In Figure 2, a man who appears to be suffering from haematemesis (the vomiting of blood) a symptom of the plague is seen surrounded by caregivers while an intercessor pleads with the Blessed Virgin on his behalf. V.F.G.A. Votum Fecit Gratiam Accepit or Voto Fatto Gratia Avuta tells us that the man survived. Vow Made and Grace Granted [5].

Figure 2:  Oils on wood, circa 1810. An unidentified man 
seriously ill. V.F.G.A tells us he was cured.

In another painting, Anna Lungaro and her relative Giovanni Portelli from Floriana made a pious vow on the 17th August 1813 after Anna discovered two swellings on her left thigh, another classic symptoms of bubonic plague. She survived the ordeal, one of only three to do so out of a hundred and sixty at the hospital (See Figure 3). Giovanni delivered the painting to the Sanctuary on the 26th August 1813.

Figure 3: Oils on wood, 1813. Anna Lungaro survives the 


[1] Definition of motif according to the Oxford Dictionary online: a dominant or recurring idea in an artistic work. Accessed 20th August 2013.

[2] Sixty-three paintings at the Sanctuary have a maritime theme. Twenty-seven are related to various illnesses, three of which are bubonic plague, a further six to accidents on land and fourteen to miscellaneous events. Muscat J., Ex Voto, p. 112, ISBN 978-99932-0-720-7

[3] Muscat J., Ex Voto, p. 7, ISBN 978-99932-0-720-7

[4] Staines P., Essays on Governing Malta (1800 - 1813) pp. 559-608, ISBN 978-99909-0-493-2

[5] Muscat J., Ex Voto, p. 113, ISBN 978-99932-0-720-7

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