Jesuits Church Oratory of the Immaculate Conception
The Jesuits church is built on a cruciform plan comprising a central nave and four inter-communicating bays accommodating seven side-chapels. On the side of Archbishop Street, the middle bay was allocated for the side entrance, instead of an eightth side-chapel. At the side entrance are the two oratories, one dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the other dedicated to St Honoria, thus earning the better known name of the Confraternity of the Onorati.
The Jesuits Church is also known as the Church of the Circumcision of Christ, which is reflected in the titular painting placed within the ornately sculpted frontispiece of the choir.
The Jesuit church was constructed at the turn of the seventeenth century, over a plot given to the Jesuits by the Bishop of Malta, Tomaso Gargallo (1578-1614). The first architect was Giuseppe Valeriano (152-1596), the Jesuit architect from Naples. Around 1637, the architect of the Order of St John, Francesco Buonamici remodelled the church interior and reconstructed the façade, changing the church into the jewel of Baroque architecture that it represents today. Buonamici’s insertion of carved stone decorations such as the cherub heads amid floral decoration on the curved links, the omega-shaped hood enclosing a scallop shell on the windows of the lateral bays, and the pair of seraphim figures on the inverted volutes that framed the central window, are the main Baroque elements on the facade of the Jesuit church.
Works on the building of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception were still unfinished in 1640s, however they are recorded to be complete in 1651. During the 17th century, various confraternities were situated within this oratory, besides that of the Immaculate Conception.
The titular painting of the Immaculate Conception was executed by Filippino Dingli (d. 1677). The early Baroque oil on canvas painting is curved to fit within the chapel’s concave reredos.
In seventeenth-century art, the veneration of the Virgin Mary led to a new portrayal of the Immaculate Conception which draws its imagery from Revelations 12:1. The titular altar painting portrays the symbolic subject of the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother Anne. She is represented as a young woman dressed in a white robe and blue cloak, with a triple-knotted Franciscan girdle round her waist. Her hands are folded on her breast or meeting in prayer. The crescent moon at her feet is a symbol of Mary’s chastity.
Above the figure of Mary is God the Father, looking down from the heavens. The titular painting also portrays a series of putti in pairs surrounding the Immaculate Conception in a circle of clouds. Each pair holds a symbol of the litanies to the Virgin Mary.
The chapel is also embellished with a series of paintings in oil on wood, depicting roses and other flowers around the upper half of the chapel. The rose is particularly associated with the Virgin Mary who is called the ‘rose without thorns’, that is, sinless. The chapel is decorated with ornate sculpture in high-relief, executed in the 1650s by the Maltese Casanova family of sculptors.
The chapel of the Immaculate Conception is endowed with six large paintings which depict episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Together with the titular painting of the Immaculate Conception within the concave reredos of the chancel, the paintings each portray the themes of the Birth of Our Lady, the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple, the Annunciation, the Visitation of Our Lady to St Elizabeth, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, and the Assumption of Our Lady. The cycle is believed to be the work of two artists, the master Filippino Dingli (d. 1677), and his pupil Stefano Erardi (1630-1716).
The European Union co-funded project, focussed on the conservation actions required to ensure the long-term preservation of the paintings. The interventions sought to clean, repair, consolidate and conserve, the deterioration and damage sustained to the pictorial layers, canvas, and the stretcher frames through water ingress, humidity and insect attack. These conservation actions shall ensure the long-term protection and enjoyment of this artistic heritage lying in the heart of the community, and a world heritage site of Valletta.
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