Friday 30 August 2013

Icon and motif [part 2]

In typical Eastern fashion, the icon known as "She who is more spacious than the heavens" (Greek: "Πλατυτέρα" or translit: Platytera Ton Ouranon” or simply "Platytera"is found in the most prominent position at the Sanctuary, overwhelming the worshipper and overshadowing all other icons and sacred art (Figure 1). 
Figure 1: "She who is more spacious that the heavens" 
or the "Theotokos of the Sign" a reference to Isaiah 7:14: "
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, 
a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his 
name Emmanuel.” [1]
(Photo: Author on 17 ‎August ‎2013)
Set against a gold background within two round arches under which hang the seven lampstands (aesthetically these are censers); in the Sanctuary they are represented as having gone out into all the earth. [1], [2], [3]. In the Platytera we see more than in any other, the icon's true function: to make real that which is represented: 
The architectural placement of the Platytera,  between the ceiling and the floor powerfully illustrates that she is the person through whom heaven and earth are united. She is called in our Hymnography; “the heavenly ladder, whereby God has descended” and as “the Bridge leading those on earth to heaven”[....] Her icon unites Christ’s ceiling icon of  the “Pantocrator” with those of us below. The Mother of God, stands between the heavens and the earth and serves as a bridge. [1]
In the interpretation of the Sanctuary, it is the Resurrected Christ (not the Child Jesus) who bursts forth from the womb more spacious that the universe, with the radiance of the divine energies. The visual representation of the energies tell us in no uncertain terms that this is Jesus Son of Mary, incarnate of the Holy Spirit. The outstretched and raised arms ("Orans") is a familiar motif in the catacombs of both Jew and Gentile, depicting Old Testament saints as intercessors and asking the Lord to deliver the soul of the person on whose tombs they are depicted:
Among the subjects depicted in the art of the Roman catacombs [4] one of those most numerously represented is that of a female figure with extended arms known as the Orans, one who prays. The custom of praying in antiquity with outstretched, raised arms was common to both Jews and Gentiles; indeed the iconographic type of the Orans was itself strongly influenced by classic representations [....] But the meaning of the Orans of Christian art is quite different from that of its prototypes. Numerous Biblical figures, for instance, depicted in the catacombs — Noah, Abraham, Isaac, the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, Daniel in the lions' den—are pictured asking the Lord to deliver the soul of the person on whose tombs they are depicted as He once delivered the particular personage represented.[5]
In this New Testament idealisation, these figures also assume the same "ancient attitude of prayer" but are depicted as the prototype of the deceased's (resurrected) soul in heaven:
 But besides these Biblical Orans figures there exist in the catacombs many ideal figures (153 in all) in the ancient attitude of prayer, which, according to Wilpert, are to be regarded as symbols of the deceased's soul in heaven, praying for its friends on earth. This symbolic meaning accounts for the fact that the great majority of the figures are female, even when depicted on the tombs of men. One of the most convincing proofs that the Orans was regarded as a symbol of the soul is an ancient lead medal in the Vatican Museum showing the martyr, St. Lawrence, under torture, while his soul, in the form of a female Orans, is just leaving the body. An arcosolium in the Ostrianum cemetery represents an Orans with a petition for her intercession: Victoriæ Virgini . . . Pete . . . [5]
It is in the testimony of the saints that we see the idea of the soul as having a more direct lineage to Mary (the true virgin prototype):
The Acts of St. Cecilia speaks of souls leaving the body in the form of virgins: "Vidit egredientes animas eorum de corporibus, quasi virgines de thalamo", and so also the Acts of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus. Very probably the medieval representations of a diminutive body, figure of the soul, issuing from the mouths of the dying, to be received by angels or demons, were reminiscences of the Orans as a symbol of the soul. The earlier Orantes were depicted in the simplest garb, and without any striking individual traits, but in the fourth century the figures become richly adorned, and of marked individuality — an indication of the approach of historic art. One of the most remarkable figures of the Orans cycle, dating from the early fourth century, is interpreted by Wilpert as the Blessed Virgin interceding for the friends of the deceased. Directly in front of Mary is a boy, not in the Orans attitude and supposed to be the Divine Child, while to the right and left are monograms of Christ. [5]
It is not surprising that the Sanctuary should serve as a kind of giant reliquary, with the remains of ancient parishioners, functionaries and saints held (and displayed) awaiting the great day of their awakening and redemption (Figure 2, 3, 4).

Figure 2: One of two ossuaries in the Sanctuary. The glass 
lid was removed when this photo was taken. This one being 
in the corridor that connects the sacristy to the Sanctuary, 
the other being in what is now the museum housing 
mementos of Blessed John Paul II's visit on 26th May 1990.
(Photo: Author on 17 ‎August ‎2013)

Figure 3: The skull and other relics of Saint Vincent are 
displayed in the altar.  The altarpiece (oils on canvas) depicts
the Assumption.
Photo: Author on 17 ‎August ‎2013

Figure 4: The tomb of Fr. Paulus Lebrun who served as 
the parish priest of the Sanctuary between 1844 and 1849. 
His tomb lies in front of the relics of St. Vincent.
(Photo: Author on 26 ‎August ‎2013)
The Sanctuary combines the symbology of worshippers in the modern era. In a more recent interpretation, we see the prominent display of the "M" who begot God and who serves as bridge between the highest heavens above (Figure 5) and the earth below (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Stainless steel motif 
symbolising Mary ("M") inset 
within a motif of the Sacred, 
Immaculate and Glorious Heart.
(Photo: Author on 17 ‎August ‎2013)

Figure 6: The bishops of Ephesus in mid-relief
(Photo: Author on 17 ‎August ‎2013)


[1] Rev. Fr John Mefrige. Saint Ephraim Orthodox Church

[2] Blue Letter Bible: Tyropoeon Valley. In ancient Israel the use of the arch in architecture is almost unknown. Nonetheless, this example reminds us of the arch (q.v.) of the bridge between Mount Moriah and Mount Zion (called "Robinson's Arch"), where it projects from the sanctuary wall. It was discovered by Robinson in 1839. This arch was destroyed by the Romans when Jerusalem was taken. The western wall of the temple area rose up from the bottom of the valley between Moriah and Zion to the height of 84 feet, where it was on a level with the area, and above this, and as a continuance of it, the wall of Solomon's cloister rose to the height of about 50 feet, "so that this section of the wall would originally present to view a stupendous mass of masonry scarcely to be surpassed by any mural masonry in the world." Accessed 31st August 2013. 

[3] Revelation 4:5; Exodus 25:31-40 

[4] Waal, A. (1908). Roman Catacombs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 31, 2013 from New Advent:

[5] Hassett, M. (1911). Orans. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 31, 2013 from New Advent:

Wednesday 28 August 2013

The Metaphysics of Easter

The lush valley facing the Chapel of Our Lady of Itria, known as the "Jewish Caves" (Maltese: "Gherien L-Lhud", so called because caves in the area were historically associated with burial practices of early Jewish communities in Malta), bear a strong physical resemblance to the Golgotha of scripture (see Further note: "a") [1]. The tombs also display features identified in scripture with the sepulchre of Christ. [2]
Figure 1: The south facing escarpment of Gherien Lhudi 
is a honeycomb of caves.
Photo: Author, August 28 2013
The toponymy of the caves suggests a historical connection to the Jewish catacombs that formed part of the hypogea of Saints Paul and Agatha in the nearby town of Rabat rediscovered at the end of the 19th century and which have been dated back to the late Roman period between A.D. 300 and A.D. 500 [3], [4].

Figure 2: The spatial orientation of the upper and lower cave systems differ
due to topography.
Photo: Author, August 28 2013
As is the case with their biblical counterparts, many of the burial chambers have recesses into which stone slabs would be rolled to seal off the tomb. This fine example (Figure 3) has two trapezoid niches for oil lamps to the left and right, above the recessed entrance [2].
Figure 3: A recessed tomb entrance within a cave situated
at the lower level , about 3 metres above the valley floor.
Photo: Author, August 28 2013
A regular shaped cross (centre in Figure 5) suggests that Gherien Lhudi had developed into a Christian burial site at a later stage or perhaps in parallel, the shape of the cross here suggests that this particular example dates back no earlier than the late 4th Century. The letter "M" (lower centre in Figure 5) and "A" (lower right in Figure 5) suggests Roman origin [5],[6].

Figure 4: The Christian cross and the
letters "M" and "A" are visible on what
appears to be a tomb stone. 
Photo: William Attard McCarthy, 2008
Figure 5: The view of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Way 
from the Jewish caves.
Photo: Author, August 28 2013
Further notes

a. Golgotha (Heb. גֻּלְגֹּלֶת pronounced gol-go-thä') is a proper locative noun derived from Gulgoleth (Heb.גֻּלְגֹּלֶת pronounced gul·gō'·leth) a feminine noun which means (i) head, skull or (ii) individual head, in the context of a census. A more primitive root galal (Heb. גָּלַל pronunced gä·lal') means to roll away. The stone that was rolled away from the mouth of the well to water sheep (Gen 29:3; Gen 29:8). Jacob upon seeing Rachel, rolls away the stone from the mouth of the well to water her father's sheep (Gen 29:10).
b. The Eastern Orthodox Tradition venerate the Kiev Monastery of the Caves on the 28th August. Also known as Lavra, it has been a preeminent center of the eastern spirituality since 1051 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Lavra also houses relics (the head) of Pope Clement I (Saint Clement of Rome), the first of the successors of St. Peter of whom anything definite is known, and the first of the Apostolic Fathers. His  feast is celebrated on the 23 November in the Roman Catholic Tradition. His remaining relics were taken to San Clemente in Rome by Sts. Cyril and Methodius. [7],[8] The Kiev Monastery of the Caves was founded by Saint Anthony of the Caves who had originally joined a monastery at Mount Athos [9]. 
c. Two kilometres north of the caves we find the Parish of Mġarr with Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin which is closely modelled on the Mosta dome, albeit on a smaller scale. The basilica is distinguished by its unusual oval shaped dome (Figure 6) and imposing classic portico (Figure 7) [10].

Figure  6: Unusual oval shaped dome at the Basilica of the 
Blessed Virgin in Mġarr.
Photo: Daniel Cilia, 2011

Figure 7: Foundation stone laid of the Basilica was laid down
in 1912. Works were completed in 1946. [10]
Photo: Daniel Cilia, 2011


[1] Matt 27:33, Mark 15:22 John 19:17

[2] John 20:1

[3] Jewish bones in Rabat are ours by Kurt Sansone Sunday, February 22, 2009. Accessed on the 29th August 2013.

[4]  Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Diaspora, By Rāḥēl Ḥa̱klîlî, p. 273-274. Accessed on Google books on 29th August.

[5] Photo by William Attard McCarthy (2008). Accessed on the 29th August 2013.

[6] Buhagiar M (1998). Four new late Roman and Early Byzantine sites on the island of Malta p. 34. Accessed on the 28th August 2013.

[7] Magocsi P.R. A History of Ukraine. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1996. p 98. Accessed via Wikipedia article on the Kiev Monastery Caves on the 28th August.

[8] New Advent: The Fourth Pope.  Accessed on the 29th August 2013.

[9] Internet Encyclopedia of UkraineKiev Cave Monastery. Accessed on the 29th August 2013.

[10] Mgarr Parish ChurchAccessed on the 29th August 2013.

Monday 26 August 2013

Orthodox roots [part 2]

According to tradition, Bishops on their way to the Council of Ephesus convened at the Sanctuary of Our Lady at Mellieħa. Whether the Malta visit happened before or after Ephesus is unclear, but documentary evidence in the form of a stone fragments and more importantly, the iconography of the Sanctuary, affirms the tradition (Figure 1).

The third ecumenical council held in Ephesus in A.D. 431, was an attempt to retain doctrinal boundaries set by earlier councils whose integrity was being threatened by the teachings of NestoriusPatriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius proclaimed that the Blessed Virgin should be titled Christotokos ("she who has begotten Christ") rather than Theotokos ("she who has begotten God"); the latter being a term that had begun to be used by Egyptian Christians in the third century. The Bishops met in June and July A.D. 431 at the Church of Mary in Ephesus in Anatolia and subsequently declared Mary Mother of God [1].

In a letter published in L'Osservatore Romano on 4 December 1996, Pope John Paul II (who incidentally prayed at the Sanctuary in May 1990, see Figure 9), shines light on the chronos of Marian dogma:
In the first Christian community, as the disciples became more aware that Jesus is the Son of God, it became ever clearer that Mary is the Theotókos, the Mother of God. This is a title which does not appear explicitly in the Gospel texts, but in them the "Mother of Jesus" is mentioned and it is affirmed that Jesus is God (Jn 20:28; cf. 5:18; 10:30, 33). Mary is in any case presented as the Mother of Emmanuel, which means "God with us" (cf. Mt 1:22-23).[1]
In the bema of the Sanctuary, four unsigned paintings thought to date back to the 18th Century celebrate the life of Mary as she appears in scripture.

Figure 1: Convening Bishops on domed roof above the Ascension (left) 
and Marriage (right) of Our Lady.

Figure 2: The Marriage of Our Lady and Saint Joseph with High Priest in 
attendance. Joseph's rod blossoms [2]

Figure 3: The Annunciation, oil on canvas

Figure 4: The Ascension of  Our Lady, oil on canvas

Figure 5: The Nativity, oil on canvas

Walking in the footsteps of his 5th Century predecessors, Pope John Paul II prayed at the Sanctuary (Figure 9) and celebrated mass in the open square outside its entrance. He visited other places in Malta and Gozo, during the first Papal visit on 25th-27th May 1990.

From the Sanctuary's museum.

Figure 6: John Paul II visit to Malta
on the 25th to 27th May 1990. 
Shown here is the design motif of 
the"Holy Spirit Symbol" and 
"Spirals" signed by Richard 

Figure 7: Papal stole with design
motifs by Richard England.
Figure 8: Design of Papal podium by Richard England.

Figure 9: Blessed John Paul II prays 
beneath the icon of Our Lady 
and Sts Michael and Gabriel

Kairos scenes at the Sanctuary.
  Figure 9: Holy Communion and a Wedding

Figure 10: A nun clears the conciliar 
Altar after mass


[1] CHURCH PROCLAIMS MARY MOTHER OF GOD by Pope John Paul II (accessed 27th August 2013)

[2] Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (accessed 27th August 2013)

Saturday 24 August 2013

Icons in black and white

Crucifixion scene with clouds in background. A series of titled photographs by Christopher JL. Ordered according to my own understanding of the chronology of events on that day.

Figure 1: Calvary

Figure 2: Love

Figure 3: "I thirst"

Figure 4: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"

Figure 5: Redemption

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

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

Sunday 18 August 2013

Orthodox roots [part 1]

The Sanctuary of Our Lady at Mellieħa.

St. Luke was very much on my mind as I set off in the late afternoon yesterday to contemplate anew the wonder of the foremost of Marian shrines for it was St. Luke, who, according to tradition, wrote the icon of the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus on the rock face of a cave that is today the altarpiece at the Sanctuary.

Background to the icon

Recent research suggests that the paint visible today and which was uncovered only in 1971, has been dated to the 12th Century. More recent studies point to the 9th Century (circa A.D. 800) [1]. It seems likely that the "first" undocumented restoration of the icon was the work of Augustinian monks who appear to have been present at the Sanctuary from at least the 5th Century, as evidenced by traditional iconography dated to this period.

Augustinians were also present in the 16th Century, when Bishop Tommaso Gargallo commissioned the "second" round of restoration during a pastoral visit on 21st November 1587 [1].

The "third" alteration took place in 1614, when the icon was purposely damaged following a Turkish incursion [3]. The damaged lower part was quickly covered by a silver dress which allowed the holy faces to be venerated. Our Lady is depicted with a broad round face, large dark eyes and small lips, with the child Jesus wrapped in the blue veil of tradition [1].

The authorities have elected to retain the 9th and 12th Century layers due to uncertainty surrounding the state of the older layers. 

Back to the Sanctuary

Saints Paul and Luke established a Christian presence on Malta around A.D. 60 [1]. 

At some point during the three month visit (or perhaps within a reasonable time frame of their departure from the island), the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieha began to serve as a locus of worship for converts. It seems plausible that the Augustinian presence in Malta was ushered in by the consecration of the Sanctuary by visiting Bishops in A.D. 409 (see Figure 1) [1].

The original setting of the Sanctuary is very much in evidence. The sacristy which houses the beautiful votive art (see Figure 2) as well as the outer rooms have been excavated out of solid rock, in what was then the highest point on the hill and which today is 100m above sea level. While the Sanctuary is still very much a living Church, a larger building in baroque style was built over the Sanctuary in the 19th Century to provide for the pastoral needs of the growing population.

Figure 1: The visiting Bishops complete the celestial
backdrop to Rocco Buhagiar's Eternal Father which
overshadow's the Holy Altar and altarpiece.

Figure 2: The museum is home to an impressive array of well documented
votive art, works of art commissioned to commemorate the miraculous
intervention following intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Examples abound,
one of the better known ones include a woman Liberata Calleja, a widow from
Floriana who together with her daughter contracted bubonic plague, a
condition almost always fatal. Following treatment by a Jewish doctor from
nearby Sicily and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, both recovered [3]

Introduction to the iconography of the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary is an excellent example of how ("western") sacred art and traditional ("eastern") iconography can work together to create a sanctified environment suitable for veneration and worship. 

Figure 3: The "first", "second" and 
"third"heavens are represented by 
the three arches, under which hang
the seven "lampstands" (of which
four are visible in this photo). 
One of the first things that one notices in the Sanctuary are the "seven lampstands" reminiscent of the lampstands of the churches in the boom of revelation. In the Sanctuary, for practical reasons they are cast out of silver rather than gold and hang on silver chains beneath the lower third arch (see Figure 3).

The arches themselves are suggestive of the three heavens spoken of by St. Paul [4]. They provide a convenient "separation" between spaces inhabited by the congregation and the special place reserved for the Blessed Virgin. In the Sanctuary, she is shown with the Archangels with whom she appears in holy scripture, that is, with the angels Gabriel [5] and Michael [6] . 

Above these blessed and holy representations we see a statue of the risen and glorified Christ who provides complete access to the first (and highest) heaven. 

In the inner section of the Sanctuary, the Eternal Father by Rocco Buhagiar, (see Figure 1 and 4) overshadows the Holy Altar and the icon of the Blessed Virgin and Child Jesus (see Figure 5). 

Figure 5: The icon of the Blessed
Virgin and the Child Jesus, 
altarpiece at the Sanctuary
Figure 4: The oil on stone Eternal 
Father attributed to Rocco Buhagiar 
(1723 - 1805).

The aesthetic impact of the iconography and sacred art on the spiritual environment is the result of nearly two millennia of consecrated thought. 

A brief theology of icons

What is an icon? According to the teachings of the ancient Church, icons are as much a part of the oral tradition as holy scripture. They were (and remain) one of the primary means by which faith is handed down.

In the words of Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky:
"Icons affirm the possibility of the expression through a material medium of the divine realities (which are) symbol and pledge of our sanctification.  The issue at stake [...] is always the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God. 
The same principle lies at the root of the cult of the holy images which express things in themselves invisible and render them present, visible and active. An icon or cross does not exist simply to direct our imagination during our prayers . It is a material centre in which there reposes an energy a divine force, which unites itself to human art ".[7]

Eastern Orthodox priest Father Stephen offers a good explanation of What an Icon is Not:

"An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation [....] 
In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person." [8]
While neither icons nor sacred art are considered Sacraments, the spaces they define are holy and point to eschatological fulfillment  in the coming age.


[1] The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha - Malta,  booklet published by the Church, p. 3-4

[2] Acts 28:1-10. 

[3] Muscat J., (2009) Ex Voto p. 1;27

[4] 2 Corinthians 12:2

[5] Luke 1:19

[6] Revelation 12:7

[7] Lossky V., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p.  10; 189

[8] Fr. Stephen Freeman, What an Icon is Not, 18th August 2009