This apse is from a Medieval church in Rabat, Malta, known as Abbatija tad-Dejr, which is an early Christian site consisting of four tunnelled burial chambers in the rock face with evidence of tombs and a chapel which emphasize the presence of Greek-rite monasticism in the early Post-Muslim period. It is said that the site remained in use to a period close to the Muslim conquest of the 9th century. This fresco was originally part of the decorations inside the rock cut chapel adjoining the Abbatija tad-Dejr Catacombs in Rabat and is one of the last works in the Siculo-Byzantinesque tradition. In the centre is Christ dead on the cross with the Madonna and Saint John on either side. At both extremities of the painting are the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary forming the Annunciation scene. The style shows an emerging Gothic sensibility in the noticeable S-curve of the crucified Christ.
These two compositions are an example of ‘natura morta’ in which an array of precious items is arranged for scenic effect. The cluttered placement of the objects is synonymous with the style of the 17th-century Italian artist, Antonio Tibaldi, who gained recognition for the meticulous detail he dedicated to the surface detail of objects. He indulged in filling his canvases with as many items as possible to create a highly rich and dazzling display, representing material wealth.
Still-life paintings characteristically embody abstract ideas through objects. The mantelpiece clock in one of the paintings is a form of ‘memento mori’, signifying that time passes for all, regardless of affluence and power. In the other painting, ceremonial pieces of armour and various military paraphernalia perhaps glorify war as a status symbol.
This French gilt chalice is a rare example of early 16th-century Parisian silversmith work and of the refined taste of the Knights of the Order of Saint John.
The chased and enamelled medallions feature the Apostles and Christ. With the exception of Christ, all heads are shown in profile and each apostle is identified by his symbol. There is little trace of the original enamelling.
Besides the unidentified maker’s mark and a crucifixion scene in enamel, the base includes the coat-of-arms of the French Knight and Commander of Moissy Pierre Du Cluys. Fra Pierre Du Cluys could have brought the chalice with him from France. He probably donated it to the Church of Saint Anthony the Abbot in Birgu which was the Parish Church of the dependents of the Order until 1617. The chalice was transferred to the Church of Our Lady of Victories in the Order’s newly built capital city of Valletta.
The largest canvas at MUŻA is this ‘Allegory of Antwerp’ by the Flemish Baroque painter, Theodoor van Thulden. The attributes of mythological figures are ascribed in praise to the city of Antwerp. Fame sounds her trumpet while the Gorgon lies defeated at the feet of Chronos who personifies time. Demetre, goddess of agriculture and fertility, holding a Cornucopia of fruit and crops, is accompanied by Mercury, god of commerce. Amaltheia, with another Horn of Plenty overflowing with gold and riches, lifts the veil to reveal a personification of Antwerp in all her beauty and splendour. A river god, representing the waters of Antwerp’s large and busy harbour, observes the putti playing. A beautiful and noble peacock sits high on the rocks on the right.
This painting is from Van Thulden’s middle period showing the impact of Peter Paul Rubens with whom he collaborated. It is possibly a commission from his time in Antwerp.
This marble statue shows a nude bearded Hercules in contrapposto pose, holding the club with which he stunned the invincible Nimean lion. It could not be killed with the weapons of mere mortals because its fur was impervious to attack. Hercules strangled the lion with his bare hands and is shown here proudly holding its pelt.
This is one of the surviving items from the first known public collection in Malta, which was that of the Order of St John’s Vice Chancellor, Gian Francesco Abela (1582-1655). He owned a large collection of various items in his villa, also known as ‘Il Museo di San Giacomo’, on Corradino Heights. The statue, known as the ‘Ercole Maltese’, was once considered to be a genuine antique due to the classical pose and accurate anatomy of the figure. It has recently been dated to the Renaissance as a copy after the antique.
This feast for the eyes features coloured glass and gems, amber and wax floral and foliage reliefs, engraved mother-of-pearl, silver filigree borders, embossed silver and copper sheets, gilt bronze elements, engraved figures and flowers in ivory, small salmon-coloured coral, agate, porphyry and lapis lazuli stones, and tortoiseshell frames. The artwork served as a devotional item in a private home. It is of Sicilian make, possibly from Messina.
The central scene depicts the vision of St Anthony of Padua within a lavish architectural setting. On heavenly clouds, the Christ Child, in the Virgin Mary’s lap, reaches down to the kneeling St Anthony. God appears above the saint holding a globe, while the Holy Spirit completes the Trinity. A cherub approaches St Anthony with a lily stalk as a symbol of purity, while another carries a book as a symbol of wisdom. The beautiful workmanship and dazzling materials evoke the beauty of heaven which St Anthony inhabits in this vision.
Antoine Camilleri created an unnatural elongated skinny figure that portrays Christ on the Cross. This type of physiognomy used for a male figure was used by the artist in different works as his self-portrait. This body, the Body of Christ, is placed on a television aerial instead of a traditional cross.
This work conveys different interpretations. Certainly, the artist was presenting personal spiritual engagements, by using a popular subject such as the symbol of the cross. The most common interpretation of this piece is that Camilleri empowers television to communicate to a very large audience the word of God.
Stylistically the artist combined various experimental conceptual ideas which were already visible in his earliest works created in the mid-40s. This included the reusing of objects in works of art and the deformation of the human body.
MUŻA has a large collection of Maiolica vases of Sicilian, South Italian and Venetian production. This albarello or pot à canon, a cylindrical jar with straight sides and a wide mouth, was once used as a container for mustard seeds or mustard paste, as its inscription (Mostarda) testifies. Its cobalt blue background is embellished by a light blue, green, yellow and white array of floral, foliage and fruit elements mingled with monochromatic stylised human and animal figures. The front is dominated by a proud horse with a raised leg while the back has an imaginary scene, or ‘istoriato’, consisting of a peasant or shepherd before a hilly landscape, all framed by leaves, flowers and seeds. This elaborate decoration links this vase to the workshop of Mastro Domenego de’ Betti, who was active in Venice in the 16th century. Documentary evidence shows that this particular albarello was used in the ‘spezieria’, or pharmacy, of the Sacra Infermeria, the Hospital of the Order of St John.