ARTES visit to Malta, November 2014, by Susan Wilson
Malta was warm and sunny when the ARTES group landed: cacti, stony, tiny fields, palm trees, the sirocco blowing. Then the next day a huge grey-brown cloud rose up, it poured with rain, and cars were covered with Saharan dust.
Valletta is charming, the giant ramparts of soft golden brown stone startling you as you enter the city over a bridge, a deep gulf below, and find Wembley stores, Piccadilly tea rooms, splendid baroque facades, handsome balconies, steep steps, delightful squares and gardens, and always the sea at the end of the street.
I walked around the town, up and down steep streets, to the sea, to the giant 900-bed ward of the Hospital of the Knights of St John, on the ramparts by the sea.
The ARTES group visited St John’s Co-Cathedral, its vault painted by Mattia Preti, fabulous in soft rich colour, with scenes from the life of St John. Elsewhere in the Cathedral we saw Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John and his St Jerome.
Traces of Spanish art and architecture abound on Malta. On our first evening we went to Mdina where Fr. Dun Edgar Vella gave us a comprehensive survey of Nativity cribs and their construction, using his own collection to illustrate his points. We went back to Mdina on Friday, and there saw in the Cathedral Museum a large altarpiece by Luis Borrasa, brought to the island by sea in sections. During our visit the winds rose and a gale began – rain lashed down, streets flooded. Our journey back to Valletta in our minibus took an hour, instead of the expected 20 minutes.
On Saturday the storm prevented us going to the island of Gozo, and instead we visited prehistoric sites in Malta. I walked to a Spanish fort, a tall and severe, impregnable, square stone tower built on a cliff edge over rocky coast, one of a ring of forts built to alert the people of invasion.
The group made the visit so good. Our dinners were alive with great discussion, thoughts on Malta and the Spanish and I remain grateful to all who went for their stimulating company.
As a follow-up to our visit, in London’s National Gallery, Room 37, be sure to see the small painting by Adam Elsheimer, St Paul Shipwrecked: A storm rages, trees are hurled across the foreground, the seas are wild, it is dark and St Paul, is being bitten by the serpent. There is a crowd on the beach, all is very vivid. Or is that because of the storm we all experienced? The Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta revealed the devotion among the Maltese to St Paul, their patron saint, and inside the church Marjorie Trusted showed us the small dressed figure, above an altar, of a Mater Dolorosa, by the Granada sculptor Pedro de Mena.
John Elliott recommended reading Ernle Bradford’s The Great Siege and on Tuesday I tracked a copy down to the bookshop at The Brunswick Centre. It is excellent and, though I did not see Malta’s Three Cities (Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea) – and wish I had – I feel I now know them well.