Holy Rosary Aleteia June 27, 2021

The cave church in the Malta National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Melliehastands out from the others because it holds a wall painting of the Virgin Mary called Hodegetria (the Virgin who shows the way). The Rollo document of AD 1436, of Bishop De Mello,  clearly states that a parish already existed in Mellieħa. This Sanctuary was visited by Pope St. John Paul II during his visit in 1990. It is very probable that Christian practice, on this site and the cave church, vastly predates the present 13th century fresco. A tradition maintains that in AD 409, a number of Catholic Bishops visited the hallowed grotto and consecrated it as a Church. Indeed, the ceiling mural (which can be seen in the accompanying image) is a late depiction of this event. This would have been very close to the Council of Ephesus of AD 431 when the Blessed Virgin was universally recognized and acclaimed as Theotokos, (Birth-giver of Christ God – Mater Dei in Latin). An interesting fact is that after Ottoman corsairs attacked the church, causing damage to the Hodegetria painting, the whole mural was covered with silver, apart from the faces of Mary and the Child Jesus. It was only thanks to scientific restoration in 1950, that art historians and expert art restorers were able to uncover the rest of the painting.

Between 2013 and 2016 further restoration was carried out by Atelier del Restauro, in order to preserve the Holy Icon for posterity. Another grotto forms part of the complex of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa. It consists of a chapel hewn in the 17th century out of the hard, brownish limestone– a dream come true of a Sicilian devotee of Our Lady, Mario de Vasi, who was a regular visitor to the Mellieħa Sanctuary. It is located across the street from the Church of Our Lady of Victory, adjacent to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Mellieħa. To fulfil his life-long wish, de Vasi later erected a white statue, of Our Lady holding the Holy Infant Jesus on her left arm, at the far end of the chapel. Over the years thousands of pilgrims visited the underground Shrine and prayed before the Madonna, attributing to her many miraculous interventions and healings, spiritual and temporal.

Lupo V. and Zenzani M.G. The Icon of Our Lady of Mellieħa: A Journey through the multi-disciplinary conservation project (Aletier del Restauro Ltd.). Treasures of Malta No. 67 Christmas 2016, Volume 23, Issue 1.

Muscat J., Il-Madonna tal-Għar – The subterranean crypt at Mellieħa, Times of Malta, 19th September, 2017 

4.- The Church of St. Helen.

In Bormla (orBurmula, deriving from Bir Mula, which means [the] well of the Lord) there is a partially troglodytic church, which goes back to at least the 7th century. Bormla is an ancient city in the south east of Malta known also as Città Cospicua (meaning conspicuous city). In this church, a Latin inscription survives and a Greek inscription that once was inscribed around the pediment of the church has been destroyed. The church had survived the Turkish siege of 1565, but succumbed to the ravages of time, with World War II giving it its coup de grâce. However, the troglodytic part of the church survived, namely the chancel and apse, and preserves a partly damaged Latin inscription asserting the Madonna’s divine motherhood.

Gian Antonio’s description of the Greek inscription.
| Courtesy of Prof. Stanely Fiorini

It was originally dedicated to St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, but this Nativity title of the Virgin suggests a Marian re-dedication of the church. Nevertheless, the pre-Muslim church preserved its Byzantine Helenian ties when it acquired a Latin Marian dedication. Fortunately, the Greek inscription was recorded in Gian Antonio Ċiantar’s Malta Illustrata (1772). It is important to keep clearly in mind that what survived of the inscription, is what Ċiantar saw and interpreted, namely a Greek inscription in triangular format. He also comments that what he saw was damaged by the ravages of time. However, Prof. Stanley Fiorini recently studied and identified some anomalies in Ċiantar’s interpretation. The result of his analysis is the following reconstruction:

Ω ΥΠEPΠΛ]OΥΣІΕ. ΥΠEPΘE[N] KAI ΥΠ[E]PAΓAΘE.

TΩN X[ΞΓ].
[EΥ]AIΩN. EΥΦOPE ΘEΩ EΥΣEB[E]IAΣ. H Θ[E]NE HMAΣ E[Ξ]ENOΣA IK[H]AI
OΥΣ OΥTH. EKΓΛAΨ[OME]ΘA ΣOΥ. ANAΣTAΣE[Ω]Σ [Λ]ΥΘ[Ω]ME[N META] ΘAN[AT]ON.

The English translation would read: “Oh Thou heavenly exceedingly provident and transcendentally good… {In the year 663}… Oh blessed, patient [God], behold [our] acts of piety rather than chastise us – I have been exiled as you saw fitting – turn a listening ear to my pleadings that we may emerge, by virtue of your resurrection, we may be saved [after] death”.

Prof. Fiorini says that if we accept the proposed date and translation, then we have a clue who the author is. From time immemorial, Malta and Gozo have been used as a place of exile for criminals and other undesirable elements of various societies. The earliest of these seems to be linked to the Bormla inscription. In the year AD 637, Patriarch Nicephoros of Constantinople records in his Historia Syntomos, how Emperor Heraclius’ son Atalarich, and his companion Theodorus, son of Theodorus, the Emperor’s brother, intended to conspire against him, for which alleged crime the Emperor had their noses and hands cut off. He sent Atalarich in exile on the island of Principus, but sent his own nephew Theodorus to Gaudomelete (Malta of Gozo) with orders to the dux of the island to amputate one of his legs on arrival. Prof. Fiorini adds that if the identification is correct, then the inscription was made by Theodorus, after some score of years in exile.

The Latin inscription P… MATER VIRGO GENVI… above the apse and beneath the cornice.
The oval depressions on either side were probably intended to contain a medallion | Courtesy of Prof. Stanley Fiorini

He also highlights that not any ole’ Tom, Dick and Harry in 7th century Malta would have been responsible for having a prayer or dedication in Greek sculpted on a church pediment. Being the former Emperor’s own nephew, he was a sufficiently important person  to be able to carry out the enterprise which may have consisted not only in erecting the inscription but also in establishing the church of St Helen. The dedication of the church to St Helen (Emperor Constantine’s mother) is also very appropriate.

Fiorini S. A Reconstruction of the Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the Church of St. Helen, Bormla. Melita Historica. Special Edition, 2020

5.- St. Peter’s and St. Brancatus’s (Għar San Pietru and Għar San Brinkat) cave-churches.

The settlement of Ġebel Pietru (The Hill of Peter), at the limits of Naxxar and Għargħur, is made up of two caves. The smaller one may be identified as the rock-cut church of St. Peter. This cave church was probably used by the troglodytic inhabitants of the desolate countryside of the Great Fault. This cave church is mentioned by Mgr. Pietro Dusina’s in his Apostolic visit in AD 1575, when bread and food was given to the poor who congregated for Mass. This oval-shaped cave church hosts some classic elements of cave church architecture such as a rock-cut bench and a shallow altar-recess cut out of limestone. The presence of stucco on the walls suggests that the walls once contained murals.

Entrance to St. Peter’s cave church in Gebel San Pietru (St. Peter’s hill)
| Courtesy of Martha Borg

St. Brancatus cave (also known as Għar San Brinkat and San Brancat) is considerably a short distance away from Għar San Pietru (St. Peter’s cave), in the Għargħur area.The two caves share a common environment, and they both may have been centres of Siculo-Greek monasticism.Brancato may refer to Pancratius of Taormina, who was a disciple of St. Peter. He is said to have suffered martyrdom in Sicily, where his cult was revived during the Norman period. This hidden cave church can be reached by a naturally sloping ramp cut out of limestone. After the entrance, on the left, there is an oval basin used as a holy fountain, believed to contain water with miraculous and healing powers. There is also a depression in the ground, which might have been created as a symbol of the grave.

Entrance to St. Brancatus cave church | Courtesy of Martha Borg

Borg M. The Cave Churches in Malta and their Paintings: An Art Historical Gazetteer. Dissertation for a Degree of Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in History of Art. (Faculty of Arts. University of Malta). June 2014

6.- St. Nicholas Cave (Għar San Niklaw).

The San Niklaw troglodytic settlement is c. 180 meters above sea level, and entrenched in the sides of Mellieħa Ridge, overlooking Ghadira Valley and Marfa Ridge. It seems that St. Nicholas cave church is the one mentioned by Mgr. Pietro Dusina in his 1575 Pastoral visitations. The cave and the area took their name from the Beneficio di SNicolao della Mellecha, a small chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, mentioned in a 1436 document containing episcopal notes. The relative inaccessibility of the large cave has aided its preservation, and a substantial portion of the rubble walling has survived, showing how the cave was divided into separate areas in an already confined space.

St. Nicholas cave entrenched in the ridge | Courtesy of Martha Borg

This system of dry-walling also separated the cave-church from the dwelling siteThe largest cave was used for human and animal habitation. To the right is a half-apsed rock wall enclosed by a rubble wall. The rock wall of this cave-church was plastered with a pinkish stucco on which murals were painted. Unfortunately, due to the flaking nature of the rock, only small traces of stucco and paint survived. Traces of paint applied to the stucco can still be seen in the upper left-hand side of the cave entrance. They consist of a red ochre line measuring 3 x 7cm (1.2 x 2.6 inches), which formed part of the framing band of an icon. Conspicuous traces of painting are also on the rock wall, opposite the entrance to the church. Most probably these traces formed part of small icons of saints, painted side by side and framed in a border of dark red pigment.

Partly walled section of the cave used as a church | Courtesy of Martha Borg

Buhagiar K. The San Niklaw Cave-Settlement. Melita Historica – new series (accessed in January 2021)

Messina A. Trogloditismo Medievale a Malta. Melita Historica (accessed in January 2021)





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