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Not many people know that many moons ago I completed the first year of a degree in the History of Art and Architecture. I decided after the first year that I didn’t want to continue and subsequently took a degree in Politics. My interest in art and architecture has not diminished, however, and although these days you’re much more likely to find me in the country than the city, I still get excited by flying buttresses, pilasters and caryatids. (Look ‘em up, this isn’t a lesson in architectural features!)
While we were on a bus bound for Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta, we passed though the town of Mosta which is dominated by the Church of St Marija Assunta, more commonly known as the Mosta Rotunda Church. I hadn’t heard of the church before and was immediately struck by its unusual circular shape and its rather magnificent classical portico. There are many churches on Malta and its sister island Gozo but this one is notable because it can be seen from all over the island.
We passed it too quickly and carried on to Mdina and Rabat. On the way back to Sliema, however, I felt a little queasy on the bus and wanted to get off at the next stop; this just happened to be in Mosta so we took the opportunity to get some fresh air and take a walk around the church. As we walked around first the exterior then the inside I knew almost nothing about the church and its history and resolved to do a little digging later on. For the meantime we were quite happy to explore what is a really magnificent piece of ecclesiastical church architecture.
As luck would have it (not for the poor blighter in the box) a funeral was just ending and the church was open (it was a Sunday and the church is not usually open except for services on that day). We walked around the outside while we waited for the mourners to leave. The construction of this church commenced in 1833 and was completed in the 1860s. Like another (but much later) rotunda church on Gozo, the church was built around an existing one which was later demolished when the new one was complete. The design was by Maltese architect Giorgio Grognet de Vassé. The funds for the church were raised through donations and bequests, including those of the parish priest of the Mosta church that was to be replaced. When looking at this exquisite building, it should be remembered that it was commissioned and built at a time when Malta's economy, like that of most of Europe, was doing badly.
A couple of steps lead to the imposing portico which comprises a double row of six beefy columns flanked by two belfries; there's a clock under each bell chamber. What struck me about the church is that while the very correct classical portico is perfect to the last detail, the dome in comparison looks almost makeshift, as if they were two different buildings. The dome is not round like, for example, that of St. Paul's cathedral in London, is climbs mort gently, tapering rather than curving.
The interior is rather magnificent. There's an impressive main dome as well as elegant half domes over each little side chapel. Somewhat oddly I've seen it claimed that the dome of this church is the third largest church dome in Europe but then again I also read that said about the rotunda church on the island of Gozo. Whether it's correct or not, one thing is certain: this dome, which measures 40 metres in diameter, is very grand and beautiful. The geometric designs painted on the dome ceiling reminded me of a piece of Wedgwood. The walls between the chapels are painted a cool pale blue and decorated with paintings of religious subjects, all of them by Maltese artists. Opulent gilded capitals top the pillars that act as sentries to each chapel.
A small skylight cut into the dome, as well as sixteen capsule-shaped windows arranged in a ring just below the dome, illuminates the interior in a very striking way, reflected back from the light coloured marble floor and the gold details of the friezes. There are painted panels by Giuseppe Cali between the side chapels but it's not very easy to get a good look at them.
In the sacristy of the church there's a replica of a world war two bomb. Why? The story goes that one afternoon in 1942 the roof of the church was pierced by a 200 lb German bomb that fortunately did not detonate. It is said that when the bomb was opened up it was discovered that it had been sabotaged in the Czechoslovakian factory where it had been made; a note sent 'Greetings from Plzen'. The actual bomb was disposed of into the sea, hence a replica is on display today.
If you are passing by on the way to Rabat/Mdina I would very much recommend stopping off at Mosta to see this handsome and very striking church. You need not stay a long time but even a short visit will be rewarded. Mosta itself is a quiet unassuming town with little to drag you there except for the church, however we did enjoy a stroll around the streets of old houses just opposite the front of the church.
There is a gift shop in the sacristy though it was not open when we visited.