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The ancient, legendary story of the Chapel of the Nativity of Mary of Fort St. Angelo

Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin

Pierre Balzia on behalf of Heritage Malta

Jean Pierre Fava - Malta Tourism Authority - published on 06/18/20

The Maltese victory over an Ottoman invading expedition in 1565 providentially happened on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Nativity.

Information compiled by Jean Pierre Fava, from the Malta Tourism Authority.

Behind the protective ramparts of Fort Sant Angelo, a colony of Angevins, and later, Catalan and Sicilian nobility and also mariners and merchants from all over Christendom, grew steadily. Fort Sant Angelo became known as the Castello a Mare (The Castle on the Sea), or by its Latin name Castrum Maris.The colony had no name and it was called The Burg (the city), hence il Borgo in Italian, and Il-Birgu in Maltese. The Castle also served as the Seat of the Castellan (Keeper of the Castle) who represented the Viceroy of Palermo, acting as Governor of the Islands. If we want to go further back in the history of the famous Castle, on its site, during the Phoenician and Carthaginian periods, there stood a temple dedicated to the Goddess of the Stars, Astarte (or Ashtaroth). Then, on the arrival of the Romans, the temple changed hands again, and Juno, “Queen of Heaven” became its patroness. As a matter of fact, Canon G.M. Farrugia, a scholar and researcher in the origins and development of the city of Birgu, insists that on the same site of the castle once stood a temple dedicated to the goddess Juno.

Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
Fort St. Angelo - The Castrum Maris by night | Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority

Back to the origins of the Castle: a 1274 inventory found in the State archives of Naples (written in Latin – Extract from “Malta nei documenti Angioni del R. Archivio di Napoli,” by Vincenzo Laurenza. Edizioni dell’Archivio Storico di Malta. Roma 1935 – XIII from The Phoenico-Graeco-Roman Temple and the Development of Fort St. Angelo. Joseph Francis Darmanin, 1948), mentions two chapels in the Castle, one dedicated to St. Mary, in the upper part of the Fort (Castro Interiore), while the other dedicated to Sancti Angeli – hence the name Fort St. Angelo – located at a lower level (Castro Esteriore).

Angelo, also known as St. Angelo of Jerusalem, and his twin brother John, were Jews born in 1185. The twins were converted to Christianity shortly after their mother Maria died. She had apparently received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary who welcomed her to the Church. When the twins turned 18, they joined the Carmelite Order. Angelo withdrew as an anchorite in the desert near Mount Carmel.  In 1218, he received a vision in which Jesus asked him to preach in Italy, home of many heresies. It was in Licata, southern Sicily, just 70 miles from Malta, where St. Angelo turned his steady, unwavering attention to a local Albigensian warlord named Berenger, who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister. Angelo publicly condemned Berenger’s incestuous relationship. The girl approached the saint asking for forgiveness and a way to escape her brother’s thrall. Berenger was furious and vengeful. On May 1, 1220, Berenger went with several of his henchmen to attack Angelo in front of Saints Phillip & James Church in Licata, where he was preaching to the community. Berenger went up to the unarmed friar, running him through five times with his sword―the same number of Christ’s wounds. The saint died of his wounds on May 5, which, later, became his feast day. While dying, he prayed incessantly to God asking Him to forgive his attacker and begging his defenders not to seek revenge. He was buried in the church in which he was murdered. Pope Pius II canonized Angelo as a martyr in 1459. Immediately after his death, the saint was revered not only by his community but across Sicily. In Malta, the cult of St. Angelo began soon after his death, as quite a few residents in the Castrum Maris were from the Licata area. This year in Vittoriosa and Fort Saint Angelo itself, the 800th Anniversary of the saint is being celebrated.

The chapel in the Castro Esteriore was carved into the bedrock using troglodytic techniques. According to tradition, it was founded in the 11th century. In fact, the 1274 inventory also makes reference to artifacts that were already regarded as antique, implying that they go back to at least the 11th or 12th century. This chapel also housed a very ancient icon of the Blessed Virgin – more details will be given later. The late Hugh Braun, an authority on medieval architecture, wrote that there is a similarity between the chapel, carved in rock, and those of Mellieħa and Saint Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. Furthermore, some historians maintain a chapel hewn in rock — similar to the earliest Christian churches in Syria, like Petra and Palmyra — is in itself evidence of its antiquity. These same historians were convinced that not all the Maltese Christians reneged their faith during the Arab occupation (circa 870-1090). Some argue that, the immediate functioning of the Christian chapel, as soon as the Normans arrived in Malta in 1090, indicates that there still was a Christian community in Malta. Today, little of the original chapel of the Nativity of Our Lady remains. Through the centuries, the chapel in the Castro Interiore was dedicated to St. Anne, Mary’s mother – however, probably, the real intention behind this dedication was to show reverence to the infant Mary, or perhaps the Nativity of Mary.

Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin
Courtesy of the Vittoriosa Parish Church and the Vittoriosa Historical Society
Painting of the presentation of Our Lady (Madonna tal-Gandlora). First titular painting of the chapel. Probably painted in the 13th century.

Similarly, by the 13th century, the chapel in the Castro Esteriore was dedicated to the Mother of God (Mater Dei), specifically to the Madonna tal-Gandlora (Presentation of the Blessed Virgin), and subsequently, around 1462, to the Madonna tas-Sokkors (Our Lady of Perpetual Help), and after to the Nativity of the Virgin. Apart from Christmas, the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar commemorates only two feasts dedicated to the birth of saints.  These are those of the Blessed Virgin and of St. John the Baptist.  There is strong evidence that the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin was already celebrated in Rome during the last decades of the 6th century. In Malta, this Marian devotion surely existed in 1274, and a document refers precisely to the chapel built in the Castrum Maris. That throughout history these chapels had various Marian titles is evidence of the devotion that our forefathers have always had for the Blessed Virgin.

On May 18, 1565, an armada of over 200 Turkish warships was sighted off Malta. A force estimated to be 30,000 strong landed and siege preparations soon began. However, the Maltese and the Knights of St. John prevailed, and the final victory over the Ottoman invading expedition in 1565 occurred on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Nativity, which falls on September 8! This increased the devotion and love that the Maltese have always had for their Heavenly Mother. The feast of the Nativity of Our Lady was never so sweet to the Order and to the Maltese. Indeed, they added another title to the Blessed Virgin and began to call her Our Lady of Victory (Madonna tal-Vitorja). Grand Master Jean Parisot De Vallette fulfilled the people’s desire and named the first church (which was also the first building) he had built in his new city, Valletta, after Our Lady of Victory.Birgu too adopted another more glorious name and was called Vittoriosa (The Victorious City).

The implications related to the outcome of the Siege were not limited to Malta. Indeed, at stake were not just the lives of the Knights and the Maltese, but the very existence of the Order, the future of Malta and indeed that of Christian Europe. What is extraordinary is that De Vallette had to keep guard on several fronts. Nevertheless, he achieved what was considered the impossible! The victory was a miracle, a grace granted by the Blessed Virgin! In fact, during the epic Siege, De Vallette found spiritual solace and sought guidance in prayer in front of the 12th-century Byzantine Icon of Our Lady of Damascus (the Damaxxena), which was brought along by the Greek community from Rhodes to Malta in 1530. At the time, it was venerated in the small church of St. Catherine at Birgu. On the lifting of the Siege, De Vallette laid down on the altar steps his hat and fighting sword as votive offerings to Our Lady for delivering him, the rest of the defenders and the whole of Christendom from the Ottomans.

Today the Damaxxena is in the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta. However, the hat and the actual fighting sword of De Vallette, used in the Great Siege, are treasured at the chapel of Our Lady of Damascus within the Oratory of St. Joseph at Vittoriosa.

Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin
Pierre Balzia on behalf of Heritage Malta
The arch shows the troglodylic characteristics of the chapel.The painting above the altar shows St. Anne holding the infant Blessed Virgin with Mater Dei written at the bottom.

In 1948 Joseph Francis Darmanin, a prominent Maltese student of history, published The Phoenico-Graeco-Roman Temple and the Development of Fort St. Angelo, in which he dedicated a chapter to this Chapel, namely, The Church of the Nativity of Our Lady. I decided to quote verbatim (except my comments in square parenthesis and in bold) the salient parts of this chapter in order to avoid adulteration of, or diversion from, this scholar’s writings:

The church is on the left of the entrance to the Parade Ground, and is hewn in rock like the adjoining small vestry. It is as old as its sister Chapel at Mdina known as “St. Paul’s Grotto.”A small marble tablet, embedded in the right wall between the main and the side altars, records that the church was erected by the inhabitants of the Castle, after the expulsion of the Saracens from the island, by Count Roger of Normandy. The Latin inscription runs as follows[translated from Latin]: “The Saracens having been expelled by Roger the Norman and the tranquility among Christians re-established, the inhabitants of this Castle took care to build this church, which is the first one in the wide surrounding region, to be dedicated to the Mother of God, in the year 1090.”“There has been controversy,” writes Canon Farrugia [mentioned above], “as to whether the chapel was actually built in 1090, as stated on the table, or at an earlier date.“If this chapel was originally opened to the Christian cult by Roger the Norman in 1090, one is apt to put the question as to why it was built in the rock like the Catacombs and not in the open air, as was done by Costantine in Rome, where he adapted the Basilica, or raised new temples. Some will answer that question with Dante’s phrase, ‘It is so willed there where is power to do – That which is willed, and further questioned not.’ This answer will surely not convince the critics. It is presumed that Roger of Normandy found the chapel desecrated, and that therefore had it blessed again and opened to the faithful.“Another answer is that as the chapel was dug in the rock and not built in the open air to replace the already existing temple of Juno, it was evident that it was built by the Christians newly converted by the Apostle of the Gentiles in A.D. 58. If this were not so, it will have to be admitted that from St. Paul’s advent to the landing of Roger of Normandy, the inhabitants of the eastern side of the island were not Christians. But as it is a general axiom that Malta as a whole embraced Christianity, how is it that the Christian cult was absent in this part of the island for a period of over 1000 years? It is quite possible to assume, therefore, that the chapel was built by St. Paul, and that Count Roger only restored it to the Christian cult and Bishop Gualtieri, one of his followers, blessed it and declared it parish of the inmates of the castle and its environs. In fact it so became in the year 1090, during the pontificate of Blessed Urban II….“According to Ferris[another scholar] “an ancient picture executed in Greek style, representing the Blessed Virgin breast-feeding the Infant Jesus, used to be venerated in the church for a considerable time before the acquisition of these islands by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. So vast was the crowd that used to assemble there and pray to the sacred picture, that it had to be removed to the Church of San Lorenzo at the Borgo. Besides of her feast of the Purification, another was fixed for on the day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in memory of the deliverance from the Turkish invasion of 1565….“Canon Farrugia also mentions this picture but gives a different representation….This picture represents St. Anne with the Infant Mary, or more exactly the Nativity of Our Lady….It is strikingly similar to the icon on the same subject preserved at the Cathedral, which is supposed to be the work of St. Luke [refer to painting of the Presentation of Our Lady above].“This very old picture was unfortunately destroyed on Sunday, January 10 [This date is probably a misprint, as it should be Sunday, January 19], 1941, when the Church of the Annunziata and the annexed Dominican Priory [where it was housed at the time] were totally demolished by German bombs.“Fortunately, there is a small reproduction of this painting in the “The Times of Malta” of December 12,1935, and a copy of the photograp , taken by Canon Farrugia after its restoration, in the records of the Archaeological Section of the Valletta Museum.“The two side altars,“ writes Canon Farrugia, “which have also been cut out of the rock in the shape of what is called ‘arcosolium,’ like those in the catacombs in Rome, are dedicated to St. Angelo, Patron Saint of the Fort, (a Carmelite, who suffered martyrdom in Licata), and to St. Barbara, Patroness of Gunners.”
Chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin
Pierre Balzia on behalf of Heritage Malta
Facade and entrance of the chapel of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.
References: Darmanin J.F., “The Phoenico-Graeco-Roman Temple and the Development of Fort St. Angelo”. 1948 Ciantar N., Zahra L.,“Il-Knisja tal-Vitorja – Fil-Forti Sant’ Anglu, Birgu”, in Kappelli Maltin. Stagnaro A., “St. Angelo of Jerusalem – A Saint You Should Know About”, National Catholic Register – A Service of EWTN. 5th May 2018 A special thanks also goes to Fr. Lawrence Bonnici from the Vittoriosa Parish Church, and Mr. George Agius from Heritage Malta (and the Vittoriosa Parish Church and Historical Society), who directed me towards the right sources of information.

Catholic historyChurch HistoryMalta
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