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St Lawrence Collegiate Church

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St Lawrence Collegiate Church is situated in the Birgu Marina, Malta. Very little is documented about the history of the church prior to the arrival of the Knights of St John.

St Lawrence church was constructed in the late 13th or early 14th Century - the precise date is not known as documents are not available. A primitive chapel – San Lorenzo a mare – was built and dedicated to St Lawrence by Spanish sailors with the help of the Spanish Kings. In 1505, Don Filip De Guevara, from Aragona, was appointed parish priest of this small church and his devotion to St Lawrence led him to the building of a larger church in 1508. The old primitive chapel was destroyed and a larger and more beautiful church was built in the same location. This church was adopted as the Conventual Church of the Knights of St John soon after their arrival in Malta in 1530.

The Knights embellished the church, built a new sacristy and installed the icon of Our Lady of Philermo in one of the chapels. They built a cemetery and surrounded the complex with a fortified wall for protection.

In 1532, on Easter Monday, this church was accidentally burned down when the Pascal Candle was left alight and wrecked the wooden ceiling and other parts. The church was immediately repaired or rebuilt again and the new building was the first church to be built in Malta by the Knights. The historian of the Order, Iacomo Bosio, mentions a hot argument between the sacristan and the Prior of the church blaming each other for the disaster. He wrote that the roof of the new church was built at a higher level and more magnificent than the old one. The ceiling was embellished with the arms of the Religion and of the Grand Master.
When the Order moved to Valletta and in 1578 inaugurated  St John’s as their new Conventual Church, St Lawrence was regarded as the church of the Inquisitors, although it remained subject to the Bishop of Malta. The original shape of the church was rectangular, but became cruciform in the 1580’s when a dome was added. In about 1620, the choir was enlarged and the façade rebuilt.
Finally, on the 11th May 1681, the Bishop Frà Michele Gerolamo Molina laid the foundation stone of a new church designed by the architect Lorenzo Gafà.

Back View 1.8Mb Normal Altar View 2.5Mb Normal Main Aisle View 2.6Mb Good Friday Statues 2.20Mb Feast Decorations  2.7Mb Feast of St Lawrence 2.7Mb

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On the 10th August 1697, St Lawrence day, the present church was inaugurated by Bishop Cocco Palmieri on the same occasion of the solemn entry in  Birgu by Grand Master Perellos. The church was consecrated on the 24th October 1723 by Bishop Mgr Gaspar Gori Mancini and Pope Pius VII upgraded the Church to the dignity of College Chapter or Collegiate by the Bull, issued on the 20th June, 1820. The bell tower on the left was finally constructed in 1913 to balance the appearance of the façade.

The sacristy and Chapter Hall were damaged during the war on the 16th January 1941, during the first raid by the Nazi on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was destroyed on the 22nd March 1941 and the main dome on the 4th April 1942. The church was out of use and in 1953, the dome was rebuilt to the design of Professor RV Galea, rector of the University.

 

Four important dates in the Church's history

 

               1681 - Foundation stone by Bishop Molina

               1697 - Inauguration by Bishop Cocco Palmieri

               1723 - Consecration by Bishop Gori Mancini

               1820 - Collegiate by Pope Pius VII -  Bishop of Malta Ferdinando Mattei

 


Some Works of Art in the Church


The Martyrdom of St Lawrence by Mattia Preti

The huge altarpiece (579x402cm) is the largest known canvas by Mattia Preti (1613-99), one of the greatest South Italian artists of the 17th century.  It was commissioned by Canon Anton Testaferrata in 1689,  who paid Preti 200 Scudi (approx. Lm17) to paint his armorial shield  in the lower left hand corner. It is probably the last important painting made by Mattia Preti.

 

Christ the Saviour - Stefano Erardi (1630-1716)

Situated on the right of the church, facing the aisle, and commissioned by the Order of St John, is Stefano Erardi's copy of the original oil painting by Guido Reni (1575-1642), representing Christ the Saviour. The Reni painting is in the Museum of fine Arts in Valletta.

 

The Dead Christ

Attr. to Stefano Erardi (1630-1716).

 

The Three Plague Saints - Filippo Paladini (c.1544-1616)

The three plague saints - St Paul, St Rocco and St Sebastian - was commissioned by Grand Master Verdalle. This painting is presumably an ex-voto of the great plague of 1592-93.

 

The Holy Trinity with Saints Cosmos and Damian

Unknown early 17th C. master

 

Mystic Marriage of St Catherine

 

Attributed to Rocco Buhagiar (1725-1805), this painting is claimed to be a copy

after Annibale Caracci.

 

The Baptism of Christ

 

This painting is thought to be from the Bottega of Mattia Preti and may have been executed in Naples around 1656-60. This dating is debatable as it might have been carried out in Malta.

 

The Immaculate Conception

Unknown 17th C. master

 

The Assumption of the Virgin

 

Unknown 17th C. master.

This was commissioned by the Order and is dated 1667 on the bottom left of the picture.

The white eight pointed cross of the Order is on the bottom right hand corner.

 

Sta Philomena

St Francis Xavier

These two paintings by an unknown artist, in gilded oval frames are in the sides

of the chapel "The Flight Into Egypt".

 

 

 

The Sanctuary Lamp

The artistic Sanctuary lamp, made of beaten silver in 1677, used to be in the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix. Today it is used only on special occasions such as on the feast of St Lawrence.

 

 

 

 

The Silver Mace

 

Designed by Mr Antonio Agius, this heavy silver mace (on left with details below), was inaugurated on the 9th August 1913.

The emblem on the front is of St. Lawrence and on the back is that of the Collegiate. On the sides are the emblems of Bishop PP Pace (Bishop at the time) and of Pope Pius X, who granted the mace to the Collegiate in 1913.

 

The Pulpit

Giuseppe Soler was responsible for the design of the beautiful walnut (from Constantinople) pulpit and Vincenzo Vassallo was commissioned to do the work in 1890. The marquetry was made by Giuseppe Pace - who retired and joined the Trappists of St Callistus in Rome, when he found out that it was the best in Malta.

The first sermon given from this pulpit was by Mgr Marmara in 1894, during its inauguration.

 

 

Christ Dead (Monument)

 

The Parish has the traditional eight Good Friday statues. Shown above is the Christ Dead or Monument in Maltese. The Statue of the dead body of Christ is by Wistin Camilleri, whilst the bed was made in 1750 by Philip Vella. The silver work was made in 1793 a martello by  Angelo Zarb.

 

Statue of St Lawrence

 

The 16th C Statue of St Lawrence is of  Spanish origin and was probably brought over to San Lorenzo-a-mare by Spanish sailors. Unique in Malta, this statue is made with real attire. The alb was donated by the last Inquisitor, Mons Carpegna in June 1798. The silver plinth (pedestal) and walnut base were designed by Alfonso Maria Pace. Evarist Castaldi was the commissioner. The plinth was made in Milan in 1903 by the firm Ghezzi and Abram Gatt made the four statuettes representing the four main virtues in Malta. Gatt also made the eight silver bronze angels on the walnut base holding the emblems of the eight Basilicas dedicated to St Lawrence in Europe. The walnut bas was made by Lorenzo Ruffino. In 1941 they suffered severe damages during the war and the walnut base was restored by Lorenzo Zammit, who had been a tradesman with Ruffino in 1903.


Priceless heirlooms in the Church Museum


The following were brought to Malta by the Order from Rhodes:

The elaborate silver processional cross of late gothic craftsmanship, front and back views.

   

Details of the cross are shown below

     

Below left: A silver crucifix on which new Grand Masters used to take the oath of office,  centre: silver incense burner and right: an early 16th century chalice.

     

 

The Sword of Grand Master Jean De Valette

 

   

 


 

The above is only a selection of the treasures that can be found inside this beautiful church and Oratory in Birgu. One has to be physically present to fully appreciate the beauty of St Lawrence Collegiate Church, its architecture, paintings, relics and works of art. Each phase in its history - the Spanish sea farers, the Order of St John, the Inquisitors, Cardinals, Apostolic Delegates and Bishops - helped to enrich and decorate it with honours and character.

 


 

Acknowledgements

 

The panoramas were produced with the kind permission of the Archpriest of St Lawrence Parish, Fr. J Caruana and the St Lawrence Parish Chapter.

 

Many thanks to:

Mr Gregory Gauci

Mr John Testa BA, Dip Prob Serv


The Maltese Association of SMOM

Produced by: Martin Micallef

E-mail:     

© 7/2004


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