DAVID LEWISTON SHARPE SUGGESTS THAT THE UNIQUE CHARACTER OF MARIAN DEVOTION FOR THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN MALTA RESONATES BACK TO THE 4th MILLENNIUM BC.
It is not an understatement to suggest that there is a very particular character and quality to the worship of the Virgin Mary in Malta. Generally, there are, of course, many churches and cathedrals across the Maltese islands – and in that sense it reminds you of the cheek- by-jowl parishes of Venice, another seabound silhouette of domes and towers in the Mediterranean region. But Malta has, by tradition, a closer tie to the origins of Christianity; its birth and early nurturing so to speak, and so a kind of maternal bond.
Earliest depiction of the Virgin Mary (Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome).
The closer ties are at first associated with that line on a map tracing the journey of Saint Paul from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Emperor in Rome – an ‘umbilical cord’ sea-lane that links the seat of Roman Catholicism with the geographical Christian heart in the ‘Holy Land’, the Crucifixion and significantly for Malta’s place in the story, the Nativity. Paul’s connection to Malta is attested to in the last chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible; really the only ‘historical’ reference to what may have happened there.
Other conjectures have also attempted to suggest Melita – as recorded in Acts – is not Malta after all, but possibly Mljet off the Croatian coast (also known as Melita to the Romans). There is a Marian monastery there too.
PATHWAYS TO THE DIVINE?
Around 60 C.E., Saint Paul was caught in a storm at sea as he journeyed West, and the ship eventually found safe harbor on the northern coast of Malta. At the northwestern tip of the island are two bays, a wider one to the west and a narrower to the east of a spit of land, Salina Bay. The latter has been thought to be where the ship may have sought shelter, though the larger bay is the one that bears the Saint’s name.
A few decades ago, the remains – metal rather than wooden parts – of some Roman anchors were dredged from Salina Bay. They carried lettering referring to Isis and Serapis which, given the Biblical context, may be a ‘scribal error’ reference to the Alexandrian ship in which Paul journeyed away.
In the last chapter of Acts, a ship, ‘whose sign was Castor and Pollux’, had wintered on the isle.
The prolific Roman writer Varro – who had compiled a vast study of Antiquities of Human and Divine Things – explains in another work in the Latin language that [t]he first gods were ‘Sky’ and ‘Earth’ … in Egypt called Serapis and Isis … not those Great Gods whom Samothrace represents by two male statues of bronze which she has set up before the city-gates, nor are they, as the populace thinks, the Samothracian gods, who are really Castor and Pollux … these [Sky and Earth] are a male and female whom the Book of the Augurs mentions as “potent deities” … what the Samothracians call “powerful gods”. These two, Sky and Earth, are a pair like life and body…
Castor and Pollux were among the crew of the Argo in the Greek story and a similar confusion as among the duos of gods reported by Varro is possible. If the Roman practice of putting deities as figureheads on the bows of their ships installed two heads on Saint Paul’s ship – Isis and Serapis – an observer may assume (wrongly) the two Argonaut twin brothers were the vessel’s protective deities.
At any rate, Isis was an ‘Earth’ goddess for the Romans in this equation; with her son Horus, she mirrors the Virgin Mary, cradling the Christ child. By no means conclusive archaeologically, but such hermeneutic enquiries are compelling.
Luke is considered to be the author of Acts (as well as the Gospel bearing his name) and by extension may have accompanied the Apostle, since the Maltese episode is included in his book. Other letters in the New Testament ascribed to Paul make a number of references to Luke being with him; Luke himself, meanwhile, may have garnered much of the detail of his Gospel from Mary herself, though there is nothing confirmatory. The text of the Gospel deals in particular detail with the Nativity – and in a way, as compared to the other ‘synoptic’ Gospels, that quietly suggests the details may originate with Mary herself.
After the shepherds are reported to have relayed what they had been told (again, evincing weak suggestions of hearsay), the Gospel relates: ‘But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’. Pure invention on his part possibly, but it hints at the reportage of an interviewer.
If Luke was with Saint Paul, then an association alluded to in a cave-shrine along the same coast in Malta may hint at ‘gods’ moving in mysterious ways for those early islanders. The Sanctuary of Our Lady had a long history according to a bishop who visited and documented the parishes of Malta in the 15th century. In 1436, Bishop Senatore de Mello undertook a survey that included the apparently already ancient chapel on the site; the Archdiocese of Malta even now claims the site as focus for pilgrimage from the early 5th century. Near to Saint Paul’s Bay, and shipwreck – one can see how the decision may have been influenced.
There is an icon of the Virgin Mary venerated in the church that now exists on the site; early on considered to have been made by Saint Luke, this painting has been dated rather to the 11th century. But it belongs to that small number of images regarded as achiropita. More properly, acheiropoieta: cheiros, ‘of the hand’, and poiesis, ‘making’, – the ‘a-’ is a negative. So, ‘not-made-by-hand’. Like the Turin Shroud or Veronica’s Veil, the paintings by Saint Luke, which include a portrait of Christ in the palace of the Pope in Rome, are counted among these as miraculous representations. ‘Painted from life’, is the inference, if not a supposed direct imprint like the Shroud or Veil.
Sanctuary of Our Lady. Leslie Vella (c), from Flickr
The painting in the cave on Malta’s coast, on the Marfa peninsula, belongs to the tradition of ‘achi- ropita’. Their function, however, is fundamentally one of divine mediation, which indicates the supplicant’s exclusion from direct appeal to God, or even to Christ; a Saint, an Apostle, ultimately the Virgin Mary herself are the mediators who can relay prayers and petitions. One prays to (or ‘via’) them, not God. At the very least, the implication is that the shrine in Mellieha where the cave was found was recognized as a ‘window on God’, in one way ‘kept in the heart’ – underground – for ‘pondering’. As for Mary herself, with the words of the shepherds at the Nativity.
Alongside Saint Paul’s Grotto, near the original ancient capital of Malta at Mdina, the notion of underground refuges demonstrates how the early Church had to shield itself from potential persecution. There is also the allure of recondite philosophies, where ‘being in the know’ set one apart, in a way, considered useful and perhaps attempted also to protect the purity of the message. History will judge the success of such an enterprise.
But caves and underground passages have been a draw for human beings for a very long time. In Malta, the unique UNESCO World Heritage site of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum – a kind of catacomb as the name suggests, but perhaps also a ritual space as well (the archaeologist’s ‘catch all’ when true purposes are less than certain). There is also a suggestion of a form of rebirth ritual having taken place there. The site replicates, underground, the kind of architecture familiar from the over-ground temples which abound across the Maltese archipelago.
There is one neglected example from the Maltese Temple Culture not far from Mellieha, and so very close to the Shrine of Our Lady. This is the heavily eroded and robbed out temple of Ghajn Zejtuna – although little remained at the site by the last century or so. There may be a degree of significance to the proximity of this temple to the shrine; and this depends on the possibility that the focus of the Temple Culture was a goddess represented by the sculptures known as ‘Venus figurines’. A clinching question really is, did Luke and Paul chance to see any of these? A visit to this temple by the shipwrecked crew is tantalizing.
A number of widespread sites, from Les Eyzies in France to the Neolithic village site at Qatal Hoyuk in Turkey, seem to have centered from a ritual and religious point of view on a ‘mother earth’ divinity. Of course, the further we look back, the more the line dividing sacred and sapient becomes blurred. Night and day, wind and rain, plenty and paucity, were all understood from the beneficent – or otherwise – conscious forces of nature, as was thought. Childbirth, the dependence of the generations of a community, death and mortality rates, were the focus of life, as they still are, of course. In Prehistoric times, the vulnerabilities of everyday life were undoubtedly more keenly felt.
Hagar Qim & Mnajdra Temple plan. Frank Vincentz (c) Wikimedia Commons
The Temples of ancient Malta are in plan each built as a stone representation of the body of a presumably expectant mother (see plan from Mnajdra). Head, folded arms (conceivably even cradling), legs as if seated on the ground. The spaces within the temple were rendered with stucco archaeology reveals, but also painted red with ochre. Blood, either simply internal or menstrual, is likely to be what is represented – we cannot know for sure. Childbirth is inferred by a possible uterine association of the temple entrance and central vestibules.
At the more well-preserved and substantial temples at Tarxien and Hagar Qim, the so-called ‘Venus
Sanctuary of Our Lady Mellieha Malta. Frank Vincentz (c) Wikimedia commons
figurines’ were found. Some are small, almost like votive offerings in scale, somewhat like Egyptian ushabtis; others, as at Tarxien, are larger. The Venus figure at Tarxien is around a meter in height, but is damaged and cut off at the lower torso about its carved, pleated skirt. None of the figures, despite the suggestions of childbirth, is associated with any representation of an infant. There is, as it were, no incipient ‘Christ-like’ figure. Perhaps because the Venus figure is the earth itself; and the community of people, local or global (as far as their imagination endeavored to reach) were collectively the offspring of this mother figure.
But monolithic temples, that may have echoed the Temple in Jerusalem, coupled with the female sculptures and other representations may have gotten Saint Paul, and Luke, thinking. There was in the ancient world, after all, a tendency towards searching out concordances among religions. The priest of Apollo at Delphi, Plutarch, in writing about the ancient Egyptian stories of Isis and Osiris, saw in them correlations with Greek gods: Seth, god of chaos, was seen as the Greek god Typhon for example.
A SYNTHESIS OF PITY AND PIETY
In Paul and Luke’s day, there would have been more in evidence from the temple at Mellieha, not far from where the caves in the cliffs offered their discreet canvas for Luke’s paintings. Perhaps also some of the sculptures there, found in temples elsewhere, were still to be seen at Ghajn Zejtuna, 2,000 years ago? It is likely, if not ultimately definitive.
Hal Saflieni, ‘Sleeping Lady’ Jan van der Crabben (c) – Wikimedia commons
The Virgin Mary’s contemplation of the shepherds’ words – in the recesses of her heart, as his Gospel would aver – found some kind of reflection in the cave painting of Luke. The words ‘cave painting’ may suggest something of a link to those allusive and illusive paintings in ochre and plant pigments at the underground site of Hal Saflieni in Malta, and from a much earlier period – by 20 or 30,000 years or so – at Lascaux in France or Altamira in Spain. Side by side with the Maltese female effigies, is there really much to separate an icon of the Virgin from those Venus figures?
There is a symbolic anchor-point in that very object, the anchor (rather, four of them) which the book of Acts says the crew of Paul’s ship cut lose to leave resting on the seabed as the storm persisted. The discovery of the Roman anchor stocks, the cross-piece that weighted the anchor, revealed the relief lettering of Isis and Serapis; the goddess Isis is often depicted in Egyptian iconography cradling her son, the god Horus, the earthly king eternally and repeatedly reborn. Serapis was a synthesis of Osiris, the husband of Isis ‘killed’ to become god of the underworld.
Later religion connected Osiris with Apis, ‘the bull’, who is the son of the goddess Hathor; and his epithet, a ‘renewer of life’, intimates pre-emptively Christian undertones. The anchor suggests a kind of crucifix too. That Christianity established an early foothold in Egypt is an understandable eventuality in light of such fortuitous symbolic mirroring.
Despite the focus on the figures and sculptures in Neolithic Malta, the tangential suggestion of Christ himself is not absent either in the antediluvian designs of the temples. The trefoil plan of ‘head’ and two ‘arms’ either side of the central area presents a rudimentary cross that even for Paul and Luke may have indicated an echo of the crucifixion. Traces of ochre could even have inferred the stigmata, and the blood on Christ’s brow beneath the Crown of Thorns. Though this is admittedly a leap.
Nevertheless, just as the Holy Family’s exile in Egypt proved the groundwork for the early Christian communities there, Saints Paul and Luke will have been attuned to the artefacts and environment they found themselves in, in Malta, with a memory of the Virgin Mary, to an extent, guiding their circumstantial pilgrimage and ministry. But Paul’s associated writings in the New Testament do not suggest he even knew Mary; though there is a Mary referred to in his letter to the Romans. One of several, however.
The sacred and maternal has a long history in Malta, as we can conclude. In Christian times, which really arise much later when Paul had left after his three-month sojourn on the island, some 200 of their 500 or so cathedrals, churches and chapels are dedicated to or nominally associated with the Virgin Mary, the ‘Mother of God’. Yet the ethnicity of spiritual motherhood qualifies Mary as simply a ‘daughter of Eve’ – and she, if we are to identify her among the palaeolithic remnants of the temples, is nothing less than Mother Earth herself. Hm
DAVID LEWISTON SHARPE is a freelance writer and musician based in the UK. He has published on Egyptology, history, language, and the arts. David’s music includes a new Ave Maria setting premiered in Valletta, Malta in November 2019.