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spotlight on: Żurrieq

spotlight on: Żurrieq

Wandering off the well-trodden path is often rewarded with the discovery of charming nooks, surprising finds, and the most authentic of experiences. Malta’s smaller villages and hamlets may very well be the island’s best-kept secrets, and although they do not draw as many tourists as the capital, Valletta, and larger towns, they are still worth straying away from the beaten track for a visit.  

Tucked in the south-west of Malta, a short drive or bus ride away from Malta International Airport, is the village of Żurrieq. At its core, the present church dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria has watched over the village and its inhabitants for five centuries, and in its shade, members of the older generation while away the time and dutifully size up any visitors before eventually welcoming them with a hearty ‘Bonġornu’.

The Żurrieq parish church is a veritable trove of art and precious artefacts, and its intricate architecture earned it protection as a Grade 1 monument in 2011. Upon stepping into the ornate church, the trained eye may immediately recognise the dinstinguishable hand of Baroque master, Mattia Preti (1613–1699), in the titular altarpiece The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This painting is considered to be one of Il Calbrese’s absolute masterpieces from among an oeuvre of some 400 works executed during his 40-year stay on the Maltese islands.     

A look around the church quickly reveals that this is not the only work of art by the celebrated artist to adorn this place of worship. The church, in fact, houses seven Mattia Preti paintings, one of which is currently not on display as it is being conservated and restored with the support of the Malta Airport Foundation. Saints Roque, Blaise, Dominic and Nicholas of Tolentino interceding for plague stricken was painted by Il Calabrese at the height of the plague outbreak which ravaged the Maltese islands in 1676.  

Measuring almost four metres high and more than two metres wide, the imposing painting which depicts the eponymous four saints together with other figures, underwent a number of interventions over the years which obliterated Mattia Preti’s hand and unique artistic technique in some parts. Through the current intervention, which is being carried out by a team of three painting conservators, the aim is to recover as much as is possible of Mattia Preti’s original paint layer, and return the painting to its rightful place within the church by the third quarter of 2022. 

A number of other churches around the island boast works of art by Mattia Preti, due to the fact that during his stay in Malta he painted both works commissioned by the Knights of Saint John as well as for the local Maltese communities. It could be that the parish church of Żurrieq houses a significant number of paintings by Preti, since the artist resided and worked in this village for several years, at Number 4, Flowers Street, where he moved from Valletta to seek shelter from the plague. 

These are only a few of the attractions that make this village a gem which should not be overlooked. We will leave it up to you to discover the rest of the village and its surroundings!  

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