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Mdina in the middle of the island of Malta was long the capital of the island until the Knights of St John of Jerusalem established Valletta as its headquarters on the island. However, the rules of the catholic church said there could only be one cathedral on the island, a cathedral being distinguished by having a throne (Latin ‘cathedra’), and Mdina already had the cathedral. The result is that in Valletta there is a co-cathedral, ie a cathedral alongside that in Mdina, with Valletta’s throne being that of the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, the throne in Mdina being at the time for the archbishop of Malta.
Mdina sits atop a hill in the centre of the island, far enough away from the coast to give a degree of protection from marauding pirates. When the island was liberated from the Saracens in 1090, a church was raised on the site of the house of the Roman governor at the time of the shipwreck of the apostle Paul on Malta in 60AD, and who received Paul and even brought his father to the apostle for him to be healed. This church is now the cathedral.
In 1693, an earthquake destroyed the cathedral, and four years later work started on the current structure rose under the architect Lorenzo Gafa, in the Roman-Baroque style. The work took only five years to complete, although it did require a major clearing of the city centre, which has given us the square in front of the cathedral.
The façade is impressive with Corinthian columns, a high central door and towered side wings. The inside is high, with the impressive Baroque dome allowing in a good deal of light, which is just as well if you want to take pictures, as no flash photography is allowed. The floor plan is in the form of a Latin cross with a vaulted central nave and two side chapels.
One stunning feature about the floor is the marble slabs which are memorials to the prominent Maltese who are buried there. Mdina was and remains very exclusive, with only the richest or most noble families having the right to own property in the city. Thus, those buried really represent the elite, as attested to by the many ornate coats of arms on the slabs, including disconcertingly a number with skull and crossbones, witness to Malta’s pivotal position on the seas and the prevalence of pirates.
Many of the paintings are by Mattia Preti, a Calabrian knight and artist. The one that took my eye was the painting of the shipwreck of St Paul at the far end above the altar. The ceiling is also elaborately painted, with Biblical themes and scenes.
There are two different types of marble inside. The darker red marble dates from after the earthquake, while the lighter pieces were salvaged from the wreckage caused by the earthquake.
In the museum, which is housed in the former cathedral treasury, there is a fine coin collection and also woodcuts by Albert Durer. What we were not able to see on our visit however, was the most important relic, one of the treasures that survived the earthquake and the pillaging of the French in 1798. It is a jewel encrusted silver cross said to have accompanied Godfrey de Bouillon on the first crusade in 1099.
Overall, I would say that if you go to Mdina, you should definitely make sure you pay a visit to this cathedral. There is much that tells of the different phases of Malta’s history.
Pictures of Mdina Cathedral, Mdina, Island of Malta
Absolutely top-notch photos on a very good review. Any idea why the clocks on the church each show a different time?
mightymuffin 06.07.2007 00:17
Great review - lovely photos xx
jesi 05.07.2007 22:45
Your pictures are really wonderful, Adam ~ really interesting ~
even the overly dark pictures of the floor look amazing when you see the XXL enlargement!
. . . . ~ ! ♥♥ ! ~ ........................................................... ~ jes ~ ! ♥♥ !