Troglodytic-Siculo-Norman
JOHN SCERRI
CHURCHES AND CHAPELS OF MALTA AND GOZO
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Troglodytic and Siculo-Norman
Troglodytic: From Troglodyte or Cave Dweller (Oxford Online Dictionary) A Church which is partly or wholly situated in a cave or dug out in rock.
Siculo-Norman: Period of time from when the Maltese islands were under Arab rule up to the end of Feudal times.
There are differences between a Catacomb and a Troglodytic place of worship.

Like any regular tomb, the Catacomb was purposely dug out to serve as a Burial Place for one or more bodies, then extended in time with more tombs. It was also the work of the first wave of Christians who celebrated regular Mass in people's houses but at the death of a loved one had a last celebration at their 'cemetery'.

The primary purpose of a 'Cave church' is exactly what it is called. At a later date in the Byzantine and Siculo-Norman periods, Monks or better Hermit-monks, discovered caves where they could live, meditate and perform liturgy. At some time the people of the surrounding area were invited to join in for worship.

Walls were stuccoed and painted, protrusions trimmed down, ledges for sitting on were carved and also a lot of decorative carving in the limestone was done in some instances. As time went by, with the transition of Mass being celebrated in a regular chapel and the numbers of faithful increasing, there are also instances of Catacombs being adapted into chapels with some tombs on the sides being eliminated to make way for those attending.

When regular churches started to be built on the surface in Malta we do not know. We do have though remains of a Byzantine Basilica at Tas-Silg in Malta and a couple of early Siculo-Norman Chapels, one on each of Malta and Gozo. I will deal with these further down. Others which are very distinctively from the middle ages or which came before and have been altered, I will talk about in the general chapter about Towns and Villages.

I will not follow a Chronological order in this chapter but merely talk about underground chapels following the names of towns and villages where they are found alphabetically. Then I will treat Siculo - Norman surface chapels.

Some of the earlier Troglodytic Chapels do not even have a name or dedication so I will prefix each of them with three stars - ***

Underground:
Attard:
The Virgin - Hal Bordi
Bormla:
Church of the Holy Angel - Latin Rite troglodytic church near Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo). Also known as the church of Our Lady of Perpetual help, it is mentioned in a 1274 Agevin document when it served the garrison, in 1409 it became independent from the jurisdiction of the Mdina cathedral. When the Knights of St John built the bastions in 1501, it was deconsacrated and filled up. It had three altars.
The bombing of WWII brought it back to light and though nowadays it can be reached by a set of 30 steps, it lies abandoned and in poor shape. Various decorative work can still be distinguished on the walls. The entrance can be seen in the picture on the Top Right, taken soon after it came to light after WWII

Its original titular picture was a tryptich and is kept in the Mdina Cathedral museum. Other pictures from this church can be found in the sacristy of the Bormla Parish Church. The picture on the Bottom Right is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, one of the few kept in the sacristy of the Bormla Parish Church.
Burmarrad:
Welcoming of St Paul (San Pawl Milqi)
- Evidence of a post-Muslim church.
Dingli:
Assumption
- Part of an early Medieval rural complex called Tas-Simblija, the Chapel was mentioned in various historical documents together with the surrounding fields and orchards. Partly underground it does not show its function from the outside but inside one can find the typical structure of the time with three pointed arches. It appears to be one of the several churches mentioned in pastoral visits in the area of Il-Qattara, Wied Hazrun and Wied ir-rum, which include Assumption (Sta Marija) ta Callus, the Nativity of the Virgin, St.Nicholas and that of St James.

Pictures Right.... (courtesy Tony Bonello)
Filfla:
Assumption
- A cave chapel on this tiny uninhabited rock existed from 1343 for the convenience of fishermen. In 1575, though its benefices were transferred to the church of St Leo at Bubaqra, its rector, Don Nicola Burlo', was ordered to look after the needs of Ta' Filfla chapel, so that the people's devotion would not slacken. An icon of Our Lady it contained is still at the Pope Leo X chapel and was recently being restored. The cave chapel itself was destroyed in an earthquake in 1865.

Picture of Icon on Right....St Peter is on the Left and St Leonard on the Right.

Below... Detail from an old map showing the chapel as a German engraver imagined it.
Gargur:
St.Brancatus (San Brinkaw). Similar to the cave of St.Peter in Mosta which it a few hundred metres away. The dedication to St.Brancatus, comes from a cult which flourished in medieval Sicily before Arab times. The cave, left its natural state, is reached through a gently sloping rock-cut ramp and a man-made doorwa. Just inside the entrance, to the left, is an oval basin whose water that came from a natural spring was credited with curative powers. The statues of St.Peter and St.Brancatus are nineteenth century additions.

*** - Nearby cave shows traces of being used as a church at one time.
Kemmuna:
***
- 13th century church.
Mellieha:
St.Nicholas (San Niklaw)
- One of a series of large, natural caves which served a prosperous cave dwelling community nestled above the fertile San Niklaw Valley, overlooking Ghadira Bay, until the turn of the nineteenth century. The cave was largely left in its natural state, a section to the left of the entrance screened off with a dry-stone wall, and used as a church. Its walls were stuccoed and painted with holy images in dark red frames. Picture above right with cave circled in red....



Nativity of Our Lady -
This Sanctuary in 1436 had already attained a parish church status. Its last parish priest was Don Giuseppe Ingomes mentioned during the second half of the 16th century. These neighbourhoods were then almost deserted being left incapable of withstanding sudden incursions from pirates. This troglodytic church enshrines the oldest painting of Our Lady executed in Malta directly on the solid rock.
In 1575 Dusina refers to this church as an Annunciation church. In 1584 the Augustinian Friars founded a priory on this site. In 1587, Bishop Gargallo found two Augustinian friars living there. On this occasion, he ordered the restoration of the old painting of the Madonna. By 1608 the said Friars were no longer in charge of this shrine which was then described as a Nativity of Our Lady church. On the 6th July 1614, the whole area including the sanctuary itself was ransacked by Turkish pirates, the Madonna suffering considerable damage. This holy painting was immediately afterwards covered up with a silver coating leaving visible only the faces of the Madonna and the Child Jesus, while the ceiling of the grotto was painted to represent God the Father surrounded by Angels and a multitude of Bishops who, according to tradition, had consecrated this church during the 5th century. During the 1740s this sanctuary was enlarged and a courtyard, surrounded by a series of arches added. The main altar in 1753 was covered with artistic marble decoration. Bishop Alpheran de Bussan consecrated the church and its altar on the 22nd May 1747. Mellieha was again given a parish status in 1841 and this church was enlarged still further. This venerated Madonna was solemnly crowned by Bishop Pietro Pace on the 24th September 1899 and in the 1950's a scientific restoration of this Madonna brought to light what still remains of the original painting.
Mgarr:
***
- Bingemma, near Rabat
Re-cut from one of the tomb-caves in the Bingemma complex. It consists of a rectangular chamber with a wide doorway. There are lamp-holes in different parts of the chamber. The most significant feature is a finely finished arched niche. There is also a deeply engraved Latin cross, the only explicitly Christian element.

*** - Ghar Qasrana, L-Imselliet, limits of Zebbiegh.
An enlarged cave with tombs dug into its walls. It is not impossible that it was at some time an underground chapel because of a shallow roughly cut niche in the back wall probably occupied by an altarpiece. A roughly engraved Greek cross on a small pedestal might also be a dedication cross.
Mosta:
Visitation
The 1575 Dusina report lists this church among the rural churches of Mellieha, and describes it as a circular chamber dug inside a cave overlooking the village of Mosta. It also records the tradition that it had been consecrated by some bishops who were shipwrecked on Malta at an unknown period.

Our Lady of Hope (tal-iSperanza)
The church, which is re-cut from a natural cave on the south part of the Mosta Valley, has been ruined by quarrying. The surviving section of the original cave has a rock pillar to support the roof, and a wellhead. A roughly cut shallow wall-niche may have contained a holy image. Pastoral visitation reports mention an icon of Virgin that was painted directly on the rock, but which was detached, around 1771, and removed to the overlying built-church where it was placed by the doorway. Tradition states that a group of Turks had penetrated as far as Mosta. A girl sought refuge within this troglodytic church and escaped being captured and sold into slavery.
Msida:
Immaculate Conception
The older part on the right of the B&W picture is a troglodite church and according to Mons.Dusina originally was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help then had its dedication changed a few times during the next century. The front part was rebuilt in 1648 and a sacristy added in 1670. In 1835 Msida became a subsidiary parish of Birkirkara and in 1867 a parish in its own right, this church became the parish church till the present church of St.Joseph was finished in 1889.
Naxxar:
St.Peter
- (Gebel Pietru.) The church of a cave dwelling community that inhabited the desolate area. It has an oval shape with a shallow altar-recess and the remains of a rock-cut bench. The walls were smoothened and stuccoed and may have carried cult images. In 1575 the church was fitted with wooden doors and had an altar. The feast of St. Peter was celebrated with two masses and the distribution of wine and loaves of bread among the poor. Picture Right...
Qormi:
***
- Ghar tas-slaleb, at junction of Wied il-Kbir / Wied Hanzira. Medieval period, troglodytic chapel. The sides of the cave were transformed by vertical depressions to form rib-like columns. On these a number of crosses have been carved, many of which are still visible today. Plan on Right.....


*** - Ghar Hanzira. Pictures Below.....
Rabat:
Nativity of the Our Lady
- Abatija tad-dejr, attached to Tad-Dejr catacombs. Modest, rectangular in shape. Has an altar recess and its roof is supported by a pillar carved out of rock. Only remnants exist of the original stone benches on each side. It has a beautifully carved ceiling but this chapel was already abandoned in the 16th century.The carved apse has a mural which is in a poor state of preservation. It depicts the Crucifixion flanked by the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel. This painting had been relocated in the past and can now be viewed at the National Museum of Fine Arts. Pictures Below.....
St.Leonard - Cave-church in Liemu valley near Dingli dating back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. On either side chambers cut out of the rock. It has a semi-circular plan and like other cave-churches in the Rabat area shows evidence for mural paintings. The side-walls of the cave have rock-cut benches, an architectural detail which was later reproduced in free-standing medieval churches.

St.Paul s Grotto - The Oratory is a re-cutting of burial chambers and bears resemblance to the Byzantine Sta.Lucia underground chapel of Siracusa. They both belong between the 6th and 8th centuries. Reached from the catacombs, it has fluted Doric half-columns, four of which are grouped together. There is evidence of a tabernacle on four slender columns. Originally there was a medieval mural depicting St.Paul preaching. It fell out of use in the later middle ages. Pictures Below.....
St.Mary Magdalen - Re-cut from an earlier Catacomb, a few meters from St.Paul s grotto. Recently built entrance to an underground crypt-like chapel dating from the third century. Roughly circular inside with built-in rock bench all around it is the only survivor from a number of such chapels in the vicinity. It is stuccoed all around with a cement like mixture of pottery and lime. It also has a small dome like structure above ground. Pictures Below
Inscription
Entrance Inside
Dome
St.Agatha - The crypt of St.Agatha is an underground basilica dedicated to this Saint who was from early ages venerated by the Maltese. At the time of St.Agatha's stay, the crypt was a small natural cave which later on, during the 4th or 5th century, was enlarged and embellished at the expense of space from the nearby Catacomb which also took its name. It is rectangular in shape with recesses. Late 18th century an extension was made for the chapel of Our Lady of Grace. At the far end of the crypt, there is the main altar dedicated to the Saint. Till 1647, this altar was still used for worship. In the acts of the pastoral visit by Mons.Pietro Duzina in 1575, there is recorded that there were many altars in the crypt, nowadays only two remain. On the walls of the crypt there are still remaining a good number of frescoes. Some of them date back to the 12th century and are in Byzantine style. The others, which are in Greek style, date back to the 15th century (1480). There are 30 images of saints, out of which, 13 represent St.Agatha. The remainder represent bishop saints, virgin and martyr saints. The 15th century frescoes are attributed to the Sicilian painter Salvatore D'Antonio. These were donated to the crypt by various devotees, offered in thanksgiving. Other paintings are still visible in the ceiling at the entrance on the right hand side. Amazingly, the 12th century frescos depicting St.Agatha in a remarkable state of preservation.
St.Mary's Grotto - The church was re-cut from burial-chambers at the entrance of a now inaccessible catacomb known as Ghar il-Kbir. In 1647 it had murals of saints but drastic changes have ruined original plan and hid the original paintings under marble cladding. In the Fifteenth century it was entrusted to the care of the Dominican friars who built an above-ground church and convent, and made it the center a Marian cult. Picture Right......
St.Venera - Ghar Barca lost by the year 1911. Reported to have been re-cut from an earlier Catacomb and contain an altar with an icon of St.Venera carrying a flaming vase.

Our Lady of Hope (Sta.Marija tal-Isperanza)
Mentioned in the 1575 Dusina Report to exist Close to St.Mary Magdalene, Mass was occasionally celebrated in it out of devotion. Access was down a flight of steps. It was deconsecrated in 1656 and its site marked by a columnar-cross in 1714.


St.Cataldus (San Katald) - Partially cut out of the entrance to an early Christian catacomb, this church was partly built above it with a stone slab roof on arches. It was in a state of ruin in 1575 when Mgr Dusina ordered its deconsecration and the erection of a columnar-cross to mark its site. In 1739 - 1745 murals of Byzantine mitred bishops were discovered during the building of the present above-ground church but they disappeared soon afterwards.

St.Nicholas - Its exact location unknown, it was reported by Mons Dusina in 1575 to exist at Wied ir-Rum. Mass was celebrated there on St Nicholas' day.

*** - Another underground Church with painted murals was discovered in 1829 at Ghajn Qajjed, but was reburied by the annoyed owner of the field.
Our Lady of Virtue (Sta.Marija tal-Virtu) - Better preserved than tal-Ghar but nowadays lies neglected. Plan is like a Latin cross with three apsed recesses. All the stucco paintings are lost but the doorway is richly decorated with sculpture. Plan on Right.....
San Gwann:
St.Leonard
(Tal-Gebel) - Mensija, near Msierah, natural cave with plastering on walls for murals. The cave is elliptical and several metres beneath ground level. In the early eighteenth century icons of saints John the Baptist, Athanasius, and Basil were painted on the rock, on either side of the altar. It still has a late medieval triptych of St.Leonard and the Annunciation. The church is first mentioned in 1586. It was deconsecrated in 1618, but the chance find of its triptych caused a renewal of interest in it, and it was reopened for worship in 1691. Plan and picture on Right...
San Pawl:
St.Martin's Grotto.In 1931 a statue of the Immaculate Conception (work of the sculptor Wigi Muscat) was erected in the Grotto. In 1939 Dun Dward Farrugia Bugeja erected an altar in the grotto and on January 25, 1952 Chev.Sir Hannibal Scicluna obtained a permit from the Vatican for Mass to be celebrated in the Grotto. Run by the Franciscan Conventuals.
Siggiewi:
St.George (San Gorg ta' Gebel Ciantar)
- Ta' Zuta,
This church is mentioned in the will of Paolo Pellegrino, of 15th September 1436. In its present state it consists of a carefully excavated chamber with a gently concave back wall and a ceiling shaped to resemble a flattened tunnel-vault. There was originally a built facade with a simple square doorway descending a couple of steps. Sadly the place was turned into a garage in recent times with the raising of the floor by a several centimeters, the covering of the walls with a cement and the removal of the altar. The entrance has also been opened up and fitted with a garage door. Christian elements surviving include a deeply engraved Latin-cross on the back wall, and, beneath it, an apparent chalice-like motive carved in very low profile. Daubs of paint suggest that the walls may at one time have carried images. In 1436, Paolo Pellegrino bound his heirs with several obligations including the observance of the feast of St.George with low mass, first vespers, and the intoning of a Salve Regina by two priests, as well as the distribution of nuts and wine to the congregation. In 1616 the furnishings included an old altar-painting, and in 1744 there was a spring of fresh water at the foot of the altar. The built facade carried some sort of bell-cot and in 1818 it was decided to replace the bell by a larger one that could be heard over a larger distance.
Picture of the Chapel of the Annunciation built above it on the Right......

***- Ta' Giampula, limits of Rabat, and Siggiewi
Located in private property and has still to be properly studied. First recorded between the villages of Zebbug and Siggiewi in 1772, it has four columns cut in the rock in its central area. It was suggested to be an Early Christian catacomb which was re-cut as an and oratory in the Middle Ages.
GOZO:
Victoria:
Annunciation. -
Partly troglodytic. First built before 1347.


Xlendi:
St.Domenica. -
This cave church is documented in the 1637 visitation report when it was deconsecrated. Its furnishings included a polychrome stone statue of the Virgin saint which survives in the Jesuit Retreat House of the Virgin of Manresa, in Rabat Gozo.

Kerchem:
St.Catherine of Siena - A church, nowadays lost, which was built on top of a probably troglodytic church which was kept as a crypt. The whereabouts of this chapel are called Ta Santa Katerini - in the plural - indicating the previous existence of another church dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria in the area.

Early - Surface:
Marsaxlokk:
***
- Tas-Silg - Ongoing excavations have unearthed layers of remains from different civilizations on this site. A temple dedicated to the Phoenician god Astarte was built here which in turn was used by the Carthaginians for their god Melkart. The Romans in turn used it as a place of worship for the godess Juno.

Malta fell under Byzantine jurisdiction after the fall of Rome. These Christians of the 4th and 5th centuries not only used the same building for worship but extended it into a Basilica. The same main semicircular sanctuary was used right through. From the Byzantine time, remains of a reddish floor decorated with white marble chips was unearthed. Also lately, the ongoing excavations have brought to light a large immersion baptismal font.
Immersion Baptismal font
Rabat:
St Michael (Tas-sincier)
Siculo-Norman in structure in the small district of Gnien is-Sultan, it is the oldest church in Rabat and is dedicated to St.Michael with the unusual title Tas-Sincier corrupted to 'San Cir'. Until a few decades ago it was used as a manure store, but lately it has been cleaned up as a Heritage building. It had a mural in its apse showing Christ blessing the congregation. A drawing of this church was used on one of a set of Maltese stamps showing old wayside Chapels. Photos included with permission of Noel Ciantar from website 'Kappelli Maltin'

Gozo:
St.Cecilia (Ta Santa Cilja)
The derelict Siculo-Norman chapel of St.Cecilia, at the end of the village of Ghajnsielem on the way to Rabat, is the oldest chapel on the island of Gozo. It is very similar in structure to the one at Rabat Malta above. Note that this one lacks the buttresses on the side that the one in Malta has and which would have been added at a later date. Sadly, out of neglect, two of its walls collapsed these last few years, but thankfully it is right now being restored with as much of the original stone as possible being used.