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A 17th century cathedral
A 17th century cathedral
With its tumultuous history and undeniable links to Paul the Apostle, we think St Paul’s Cathedral is worth a feature and a visit
Though the Maltese Islands are famous for their stunning village feasts, most of which take place during the summer months, many don’t realise that there are countless other feasts celebrated throughout the rest of the year, too!
One of those feasts is that of the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle, which is celebrated locally during the liturgical year on 25 January, at St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Paul, commonly known as St Paul’s Cathedral is located in Mdina and is dedicated to St Paul the Apostle. As many have heard, according to the tradition, the site of the cathedral was originally occupied by a palace that belonged to St Publius, the Roman governor of Melite (ancient Mdina). According to the story, St Publius was the person who greeted Paul the Apostle, after he was shipwrecked in Malta. Though there are remains of a Roman domus in the crypt that is still present today and the tradition is commonly believed, the version of events is not completely supported by historians.
Let’s fast forward! The first cathedral that stood on the site is said to have been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, during the Arab period and after the Aghlabid invasion, the churches in Melite were looted and as revealed by excavations, the site was used as a mosque.
Following the invasion of the Normans in 1091, Christianity was re-established as the dominant religion in the country and during the 12th and 13th centuries, a cathedral dedicated to St Paul was built on the site, in Gothic and Romanesque styles. The story doesn’t end there however, as in 1679, bishop Miguel Jeronimo de Molina decided to replace the medieval choir with one built in Baroque style, and Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa was appointed to design and oversee the project. A few years later, the cathedral was severely damaged during the 1693 Sicily earthquake and works began to restore the building. Work on the dome was finished and thus the cathedral fully completed by 24 October 1705. The cathedral is often regarded as Gafa’s masterpiece.
The Cathedral is built in the Baroque style, with some influences from native Maltese architecture. Most of
the cathedral’s floor is made up of inlaid tombstones or commemorative marble slabs, similar to those found at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The remains of a number of bishops and cannons, as well as laymen from noble families are buried within the cathedral. The ceiling has frescoes, depicting the life of St Paul, which were painted by the Sicilian painters Vincenzo, Antonio and Francesco Manno in 1794.
Many artefacts from the pre-1693 earthquake survived and were used to decorate the cathedral, including a late Gothic, early Renaissance baptismal font, dating back to 1495, the old cathedral’s main door, which was made in 1530 and some 15th century choir stalls, as well as some paintings. The cathedral’s aisles, chapels and sacristy contain several frescoes and paintings, including works by Mattia Preti and his bottega, Francesco Grandi, Domenico Bruschi, Pietro Gagliardi, Bartolomeo Garagona, Francesco Zahra, Luigi Moglia and Alessio Erardi.
As initially mentioned, the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle is celebrated towards the end of the month of January. St Paul was the greatest of the early Christian missionaries and first appears in the Acts of the Apostles, under the name of Saul. The feast speaks of his conversion which, according to the New Testament, was an event in his life that led St Paul to persecute early Christians and to become a follower of Jesus. It’s normally dated to AD 34-37, four to seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday April 7, 30 AD.