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Il-Vari Tal-Ġimgħa L-Kbira F'Malta

L-Arti, it-Tradizzjonijiet u l-Fidi fil-festi tar-Randan Imqaddes

The Iconography of the Maltese Good Friday Processional Statues: Their Development between 1960 and 1984


Joseph F. Grima

It is not my intention, in this short communication, to comment on the artistic merit - or otherwise - of the statues which will be reviewed. My aim is simply and solely to put on record the changes which have occurred in the iconography of Maltese and Gozitan Good Friday processional statues during the past quarter of a century. I would also like to emphasize that what I am writing about from 1960 to 1984 is based on personal observation and my own personal notes. The point of departure is 1960. So we must first note the situation with regard to the statues' iconography in that year.

The Situation in 1960

The Good Friday processions saw their beginning in the Maltese islands some time in the second half of the sixteenth century at Rabat in Malta and then spread to various other localities during the subsequent centuries, right up till the present time. The date of the first organisation of the more recent manifestations are known, with examples that spring to mind being Mosta in 1866 and that of the Gozo Cathedral in 1968. The dates of others are approximative: examples include the already-mentioned Rabat procession and Vittoriosa in circa 1700 [1]. We know when others were well-established such as the one at Qormi in 1764 though nothing is known of its origin [2]. We know of the existence of statues, such as at Zejtun in 1742 [3] and Luqa in 1795 [4], but we don't know whether processions were actually held in these dates as well.

In all, there are no less than fourteen such manifestations in Malta and five in Gozo. At Xewkija, there is also a set of statues but no procession takes place. But the changes in iconography refer to a total of fourteen localities. A large number of other parishes have statues of Our Lady of Sorrows and a few others, such as Hamrun (St Cajetan) and Mellieha, have statues of Jesus Falling under the Cross. But these do not form part of our survey.

Very probably, most of the processions started with just one statue and the number was progressively increased during the subsequent years. The Rabat procession still boasts of what is the oldest statue still carried processionally, the Scourging at the Pillar, probably imported from Sicily about four centuries ago. The earliest statues seem to have been of the type still found at Vittoriosa, that is, dressed-up figures. Vittoriosa is, in fact. perpetuating and continuing a centuries old tradition of Maltese processional statues [5] which extended also to titular statues such as the still-existent St Nicholas at Siggiewi [6]. One may here point out that similarly-dressed statues have found favour in Gozo where there are no less than three similar sets of Good Friday statues, namely two at Victoria and another at Żebbuġ, which came into being in the nineteenth and the present centuries.

It is very probable that the transfer to papier-mache (locally known as kartapesta) figures took place in the eighteenth century when we know that the first Maltese exponent of this art was Saverio Laferla who died in 1761 [7] and who is credited with, among other statues, the well-known Our Lady of Sorrows venerated at the Ta' Ġieżu Church at Valletta [8]. An indication of this transfer of loyalties, so to say, is found in the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows of Qormi whose face and hands are made of eighteenth century stucco but with a papier-mache dress. Very probably, it had been similar to the Vittoriosa statues but had its drapery replaced by papier-mache [9].

Invariably, by time, sets of Good Friday statues became standardised to eight episodes which included:

-the Agony in the Garden showing Christ with one angel holding a Cup and a Cross;

-the Scourging at the Pillar showing Jesus tied to a whipping-post in front of Him or at his back;

-the Crowning with Thorns with Christ sitting down or standing up;

-Jesus Falls under the Cross, locally known as the Redeemer;

-Veronica, showing Christ's face on her veil;

-The Crucifixion with the traditional figures of Mary Magdalene always shown under the Cross whilst St John -and Our Lady are either placed together, or at separate corners of the group;

-Jesus's Burial, locally known as The Monument;

-and Our Lady of Sorrows shown either with an angel or with St John; sometimes all three are present. In Gozo, this episode frequently shows a statue of the Madonna standing without any Cross as a background.

Up till 1960, no changes in this traditional set of eight are recorded except for three innovations which took place between 1878 and 1903.

The promoter, so to say, of these innovations was the well-known Maltese statuary Carlo Darmanin (1825-1909). In 1878, he produced for the Cospicua parish his well-known Agony in the Garden in which he included two angels comforting Christ instead of the usual solitary angel [10] whilst, in 1895, he produced a Veronica for Mosta in which the main figure is accompanied by a young girl, a conception said to be based on the revelations of the German mystic Catherine Emerich [11]. In the meantime, an undated statue of the Agony in the Garden, attributed by some to Vincenzo Cremona (1851-1912) and by others also to Darmanin, appeared on the scene. This statue, which forms part of the Qormi procession, also has two angels [12]. One may here note that Cremona was one of Darmanin's former pupils. So far, therefore, there was a slight development of two episodes but, in 1903, Darmanin produced for Qormi a statue showing the Betrayal by Judas, a scene never before depicted on Good Friday statuary groups in Malta [13].

No other changes or innovations are recorded before 1961. Any changes which did take place, vide all the Gozo processions for example, fall all into line with the traditional pattern already outlined.

Developments after 1960

The period between 1960 and 1984, however, has more than made up for the relatively conservative trend of the previous 350 years. In 1976, Joseph Cassar Pullicino noted two types of development in Good Friday statues [14]. Personally, I prefer to list the changes as being of three types, as shall presently be explained. One will note that certain parishes figure more prominently than others whilst the processions of Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea, Għargħur and Victoria's parish of St George in Gożo, together with the Xewkija set [15], have not affected any changes in the iconography of their statues during this period.

The first development has been to emulate the Qormi procession which was the only one to possess a statue of The Betrayal. Thus Żejtun imported a statue from Lecce, Italy - the work of Angelo Capoccia - in 1961 and paved the way for no less than another eight similar representations, all made locally with one exception as indicated below:

Mosta, in 1963, by Gerolamo Dingli;

Xagħra (Gozo), in 1964, by Salvatore Brono of Italy, Bari;

Paola, in 1971, by Antonio Farrugia;

Cospicua, in 1972, by Louis Vassallo;

Luqa, in 1973, by Gerolamo Dingli [16];

Naxxar, in 1975, by Agostino Camilleri;

Żebbuġ (Malta), in 1978, by Gerolamo Dingli;

Rabat, in 1982, by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi.

Some of these groups also have elaborations as shall be presently indicated.

The second development was the addition of new episodes which did not figure in the original and traditional set of eight (or nine) statues. As had happened in 1903, Qormi again paved the way with the importation, in 1961, of two groups of statues depicting The Last Supper and Jesus Meets His Blessed Mother, both being the work of Savatore Bruno of Bari, Italy (the latter has been replaced by a statuary group of Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1980). These importations were then followed by other additions in Qormi and other villages which, in chronological sequence, were as follows:

Żejtun, 1962: the Simon of Cyrene Episode, by Angelo Capoccia of Lecce, Italy; Rabat, 1962: Christ being unrobed on Calvary, by Salvatore Bruno of Bari, Italy;

Żebbug (Malta), 1964: the Simon of Cyrene Episode, by Gerolamo Dingli;

Żejtun, 1965: The Pieta (or Deposition), by Angelo Capoccia of Lecce, Italy;

Qormi, 1965: The Pieta (or Deposition), by Salvatore Bruno, of Bari, Italy;

Żebbuġ (Gozo), 1968: The Last Supper, by Agostino Camilleri [17];

Paola, 1976: Jesus Meets His Blessed Mother, by Antonio Farrugia [18].

To these, one might add that the Qormi statue of Jesus Meets His Blessed Mother was replaced by a more elaborate group made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1980 whilst the Rabat group depicting Christ being unrobed at Calvary was replaced in 1984 by another group by the hand of the same Camilleri Cauchi.

As the result of these additions, one notes that the number of episodes represented in local Good Friday procession by 1984 were no longer the traditional eight (or nine at Qormi), but varied from seven to twelve as shown hereunder in alphabetical order:

Statistics as at 1984:

7 statues: the Gozo Cathedral of Victoria, Gozo;

8 statues: Għargħur, Għaxaq, Senglea, Valletta, Victoria's parish of St George, Vittoriosa, Nadur and Xewkija;

9 statues: Cospicua, Luqa, Mosta, Naxxar, Żebbuġ (Gozo) and Xagħra;

10 statues: Paola, Rabat and Żebbuġ (Malta);

12 statues: Qormi and Żejtun.

The third development has been the elaboration of certain episodes already represented in the procession, either before or after 1960. Qormi and Żejtun set the scene with three statues in 1962. Żejtun imported a group by Angelo Capoccia showing Pilate presenting Christ to the Jews (Ecce Homo) whilst Qormi imported two elaborations of The Scourging at the Pillar and Ecce Homo scenes, both by Salvatore Bruno, but which have subsequently been replaced by works made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1981 and 1982 respectively. These latter replacements also merit particular mention because of a certain amount of originality and a departure from accepted norms in that the Scourging scene actually shows Christ being untied from the pillar whilst the Ecce Homo statuary group includes also a pensive Caiphas, a depiction not yet found in any other 'Maltese' group, whilst Pilate presents Christ to the Jewish mob.

Other additions have been made to The Betrayal groups of Mosta, Naxxar and Żebbuġ (Malta) in the sense that when they were originally manufactured in 1963, 1975 and 1978 respectively, they were depicted with three figures instead of the usual two. Thus the Mosta statue has a Jew holding aloft a torch, and the Naxxar and Żebbuġ (Malta) groups include the figure of St Peter.

In 1965, Qormi also imported, once more from Salvatore Bruno, a new Veronica group of three statues showing Veronica, Christ and a Jew. This group, an innovation still restricted to the Qormi procession, was replaced in 1981 with an original group, through the hand of Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, which not only includes Veronica and Christ but also Simon of Cyrene carrying the Cross together with a representation of the kind women of Jerusalem, also not found in other processions. In a way, the Qormi manifestation was enhanced by two new groups without actually increasing the number of statuary groups to be carried.

In 1968, a new procession - now with seven statues, the original eight less Veronica - started to be organised from the Gozo Cathedral which has its innovations as well. The Agony in the Garden statue was endowed with two angels (like those of Cospicua and Qormi) made by Agostino Camilleri - the figure of Christ is a very old statue by an unknown artist - whilst the Crucifixion scene includes also the figure of Longinus [19]. However, a more striking innovation has been that the traditional statue of the so-called Monument - or Burial of Christ - with its rich canopy and (usually) angels was replaced by a statuary group showing the dead Christ in a winding-sheet being carried to His Burial by St John, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. This depiction, also by Agostino Camilleri, is certainly more true to life but it is a break with tradition [20].

Somewhat similarly, the Għaxaq Crucifixion group included a Roman soldier with a sponge on a stick - a 1977 addition by the Għaxaq artisan Carmelo Agius [21] (removed in recent years) - whilst the figure of Longinus is also found in the Crucifixion statue of Nadur, the latter being a 1976 work by Michael Camilleri Cauchi who has also produced two new statues, in 1981 and 1982, for Naxxar which are, in fact, elaborations of traditional themes: Ecce Homo and Jesus Falls under the Cross. The former is now made up of the two figures of Christ and Pilate whilst the latter includes a Roman soldier and is, in fact, the only Redeemer statue on the islands to do so [22].

One may conclude this chronicle by noting that four of the above-mentioned developments were also found in the Paola set of statues of Antonio Farrugia made in the early 1970s which have since been replaced by new works of Alfred and Michael Camilleri Cauchi, and which included a flogging scene, an Ecce Homo scene with Christ and Pilate, Veronica flanked by an old woman and child, and a Monument shorn of all traditional embellishments. Finally, not to be missed is the elaboration in the Ecce Homo of Rabat, made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1984, showing Christ in a sitting posture in front of the whipping-post.

The Żejtun statue of the Crowning with Thorns has been replaced by a 1985 three figure group, the work of Alfred Camilleri Cauchi. The Żebbuġ (Malta) Scourging and Ecce Homo have each had a soldier added, in 1985 and 1986 respectively, both being the work of Michael Camilleri Cauchi.

[1] Cassar Pullicino, Studies in Maltese Folklore, Malta 1976, pp. 30-3.

[2] National Library of Malta (NLM), Vol. 14, pp. 266 & 428.

[3] G. Aquilina, II-Gimgha I-Kbira tal-Belt, Malta 1966, p. 38.

[4] G. Micallef, Hal Luqa Niesha u Ġrajjietha, Malta 1975, p. 251.

[5] G. Aquilina, op. cif., pp. 31-2, wherein the author gives documented information about the Valletta Good Friday processional statues between 1673 and 1729. These statues were dressed-up figures.

[6] V. Borg, "L-Istatwa Proċessjonali l-Qadima ta' San Nikola fis-Siġġiewi," Is-Siġġiewi, No. 3, December 1977.

[7] NLM, Vol. 13, p. 435.

[8] G. Aquilina, op. cit., p. 38; G. Aquilina, "Marian Devotions and the Franciscans Minor," MarianDevotions in the Islands of Saint Paul 1600-1800, ed. V. Borg, Malta 1983, p. 338.

[9] I.F. Grima, "ll- Vari tal-Ġimgħa Mqaddsa," II-Knisja Parrokkjali ta' San Ġorg Hal Qormi Erba' Sekli ta' Storja, ed. IF. Grima, Malta 1984, p. 103.

[10] C. Galea Scannura, "Holy Week Traditions in Malta," The Holy Week at Paceville, Malta 1978, p.28.

[11] Written personal communication by l Borg, 25.iv.1985.

[12] IF. Grima, op. cif., p. 98.

[13] Ibid., p. 99.

[14] Cassar Pullicino, op. cif., pp. 33-4.

[15] Xewkija replaced the statue of The Redeemer in 1985. The new statue, by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi, does not really depart from the traditional exposition except that Christ wears a white robe and a red cloak instead of the traditional red robe.

[16] Cassar Pullicino, op. cit., p. 34, asserts that Luqa had a statue in c.1945 "on the initiative of a Qormi man who had married and settled down in Luqa and wished to see the Judas episode represented with the other Passion statues." Unfortunately, this very reliable author, who is Malta's leading folklorist, inexplicably seems to have been misinformed. I have checked and rechecked with reliable Luqa residents. including Messrs A. Micallef and A. Morana (two teachers) and the late Rev. G. Micallef (a teacher and historian of Luqa itself), who confirmed that Luqa never had a Judas statue before 1973. Moreover, Mr Cassar Pullicino omits mentioning the Judas statues of Paola, Cospicua and Naxxar and erroneously dates the Xagħra statue 1965 instead of 1964 (the statue actually arrived at Xagħra on 22.iii.1964 - personal written communication by C. Theuma on 23.iv.1985). It is very probable that the information (as acknowledged by Cassar Pullicino) collected by and placed at the author's disposal by Mr J. Bezzina was incomplete and perhaps misleading at times.

[17] J. Cassar Pullicino, op. cit., pp. 33-4. The author omits this statue.

[18] Ibid. This statue is also omitted.

[19] The Crucifixion group, by Agostino Camilleri in 1968, was enlarged by the inclusion of the figure of Longinus, in 1969, by the same statuary.

[20] The former statuary group of Our Lady of Sorrows, now no longer in use, included the figure of Mary Cleophas and was the work of Agostino Camilleri. Probably, the Deposition mentioned by J. Cassar Pullicino, op. cit., p. 34, is this same statue.

[21] Personal verbal communication by J. Farrugia of Ghaxaq, 20.v.1986.

[22] J. Cassar Pullicino, op. cit., p. 34, also mentions a new statue of the Deposition for Naxxar in 1965. Actually, Naxxar has never had a statue of the Deposition but, in 1965, the statuary group of Our Lady of Sorrows was replaced by a new work by Gerolamo Dingli (written personal communication by Rev. C. Catania, organizer of the Naxxar Good Friday procession, 18.iv.1985). Cassar Pullicino is probably referring to Dingli's statue which includes the figure of St John.