St Paul's Cathedral, Mdina
Of all the churches on the islands, St Paul's Cathedral is the finest and most mature example of Maltese Baroque; not fussy and ornamental, but rather articulate with Roman, Sicilian and Italian influences. From all perspectives this monumental church with its bold austere swathes takes charge: at the screen facade, from a distance, in silhouette and from inside.Tradition states the cathedral is built on the site of the villa belonging to the Roman governor, Publius, where the shipwrecked St Paul healed Publius' father and converted the grateful governor himself to Christianity. (Publius later became the first bishop of Malta and was martyred in Greece.) The simple 12th C. Norman structure of Count Roger was enlarged in 1419, and the present cathedral was built following the earthquake of 1693, which destroyed much of southeast Sicily and Malta.A new cathedral was commissioned and the architect, Lorenzo Gafa, liked the site on the northeast corner of Mdina. The structure was built in five years, and was consecrated in 1697.St Paul's Cathedral sits on a low podium at the end of the eponymous rectangular square. The near-square facade with its three cleanly divided bays gives it a light but solid air. The Corinthian order of pilasters below the composite ones span the entire facade without interruption, leaving above the two side doors brave expanses of honey-colored masonry. The bell towers, each with six bells, are squat, adding to the facade's heaviness, but with Gafa's deft touch they appear lighter, for the twin clocks nudge into the lower lip of the cornice.Above the main door on the left is the escutcheon of Grand Master Perellos and on the right that of Bishop Perellos. In front are the obligatory cannons, part of the knights' ordinance. Finally, there is the light octagonal dome, with eight stone scrolls above a high drum leading up to a neat lantern.
Opening hours: 9am-1pm, 1:30pm-4:45pm; Closed: Sun
Entrance fee: FREE
St Paul's Cathedral Highlights
Lorenzo Gafa's plan for this church is a Latin cross with a vaulted nave, two aisles and two small side chapels. Space under the rich tessellated floor of extravagant and macabre tombstones is reserved for Maltese nobles and high-ranking clergy.The Sicilian white marble baptismal font was a gift from Bishop Valguarnero in 1495 and survived the earthquake of 1693. The statue of St Publius and the two lecterns of St John and St Luke by the main altar are by Guiseppe Valenti. The frescoes in the cross-vaulted ceiling were painted by two Sicilian brothers, Antonio and Vincenzo de Manno in 1794 and depict the life of St Paul. The beautiful carved door to the sacristy is made of solid Irish oak and was the main door to the original cathedral, which somehow survived the earthquake.In the side chapel of the Annunciation is Mattia Preti's image of St Paul chasing the Saracens away from the city's bastions during a brief siege in the early 1400s. In the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the icon of the Madonna is bejeweled and shrouded in reverential grime, is alleged to have been painted by St Luke. The silver tabernacle is Roman and dates from the early 18th C. The main altarpiece "The Conversion of St Paul," the side panels and the marvelously graphic rendition of St Paul's shipwreck in the apse were all painted by Mattia Preti in the late 17th C.The two oval portraits by the front pillars are marble mosaic compositions of photographic clarity depicting St Peter and St Paul and date from 1873. The two thrones are reserved for the bishop of Malta and the grand master. The original paintings in Gafa's dome were ruined by inclement weather and the present images, representing the divine mission of the church, were painted about 40 years ago.The Chapel of the Crucifixion has inlaid marble floors resembling a carpet and somber black and gilt 18th C. gates. The crucifix was fashioned by a Franciscan monk in the 17th C. The altarpiece of the martyrdom of St Publius and his baptism by St Paul has sometimes been attributed to Preti but is only his school.
Commissioned as a seminary by Bishop de Bussan in 1733, the design of the Cathedral Museum is often and incorrectly attributed to Giovanni Barbara, who died five years before. The unknown architect produced a crisp and impressive structure with effusive Sicilian decorations that complement the earlier cathedral. The concave window and balcony supported by two Atlantean figures on the first floor neatly separate the facade. Cicero stayed in a house on this site while preparing his case against the thieving Roman governor, Verres.The museum sprawls over two floors around an airy central courtyard and houses articles of importance, beauty and value, including the cathedral's and Inquisition's archives. Many of the artifacts, including the Durer collection, were bequeathed by Count Saverio Marchese in the early 19th century.Notable exhibits include a comprehensive collection of coins and medals from ancient Malta through to the present, Durer woodcuts from the early 1500s, relics of the pre-1693 cathedral, including the dramatic early 15th C. Spanish school polyptych altarpiece depicting the life of St Paul, and paintings by de Favray and Preti.