Cathedral of St Paul
The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Paul in Mdina was built between 1694 and 1705. It replaced the medieval cathedral after the earthquake of 1693 led to severe damage to the building. According to tradition the cathedral is built over the former site of the palace of Publius, Malta’s Roman governor and later its first Bishop. Initially the church was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The old cathedral underwent successive alterations including the building of a sacristy in the early 17th century. In 1679-1682 the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà (1639-1703) built a new choir at the Cathedral. After the earthquake of 1693, the new choir was still standing. It was later integrated into the new Cathedral, designed on plans based on the Jesuit church of Il Gesu in Rome.
The facade of the new Cathedral introduced a powerful sculptural triad with a dome and 2 belfries. The strategic position of the Cathedral on the highest point at the centre of Malta reinforced the pre-eminence of the Church and its Bishop. Its facade is designed on two tiers, divided into three bays. Each of the three sections is defined by superimposed pairs of Corinthian pilasters below and composite pilasters above. Otherwise the facade is left with large areas of undecorated walls. At ground level the facade includes the main portal at its centre and two lateral doors which lead directly into the side-aisles.
Over the main portal are carved the coat-of-arms of Bishop Cocco Palmieri (1684-1711) and Grand Master Ramon Perellos (1697-1720) during whose rule the Cathedral was rebuilt. Affixed to the main door are the two bronze statues of St Peter and St Paul, by the Maltese sculptor Melchiore Gafà (1631/5-1677). The second tier is defined by a large central window crowned by a segmental pediment. At the sides of the uppermost level are 2 bell-towers which are adorned by ornate spires. They house six bells, the largest one dating to 1636. The south-western belfry houses the oldest bell in Malta, named ‘Petronilla’, which was cast in Venice in 1370. The Cathedral’s clock was installed in 1888, the work of the Maltese clockmaker Michelangelo Sapiano. In 1713 a raised parvis approached with a short flight of steps was added in front of the Cathedral.
The dome was built in 1705 and is the main architectural element of the Cathedral. It is considered to be Gafà’s crowning achievement. It rises from an underlying drum in the form of a hemisphere with wide scroll volutes on the edge of the drum. Over the dome is a well-proportioned lantern with small window openings.
The mural painting in the apse of the cathedral portrays the Shipwreck of St Paul. It was painted in oil on stone in 1688 by Mattia Preti (1613-1699). The apsidal cornice separates it from the wall on which the titular Pauline painting rests.
The apsidal painting is faithful to the account of the shipwreck in the Acts of the Apostles. St Paul is in the forefront of the ship, looking upwards to the Eternal Father who is sending his angel to comfort the saint and re-assure him that all the persons on the ship were to be saved. To the right of St Paul is St Luke who is also looking upwards, as he holds the image of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, which according to legend was painted by the saint. The seascape surrounding the scene also shows the storm which led to the shipwreck of the two saints in Malta.
The Cathedral is adorned by a rich variety of wall marbles and paintings, including the mural works in the choir by Mattia Preti (1613-1699). This great artistic richness is also seen on the Cathedral’s main vault with its magnificent fresco portraying episodes from the life of St Paul. The vault painting was executed in 1794 by the Sicilian artists Vincenzo and Antonio Manno. The Manno artists also painted the vaults of the side-chapels, the choir and the lunettes.
The titular painting of the Cathedral portrays the Conversion of St Paul. The Baroque oil on canvas painting was executed in 1682 by the foremost painter in Malta at the time, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). It is framed in gilt wood.
The painting portrays the moment when, on the road to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul was thrown from his horse, blinded by a sudden light from heaven. The voice of Jesus, heard by Paul’s attendants, said ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’. Paul is in Roman armour, his shut eyes indicating his blindness, while his attendants try to rein in his horse and as confusion reigns around him. Above him is the seated Christ in heaven, surrounded by angels.
In 1682, the painting was commissioned by the Testaferrata family, prominent residents of Mdina. The Testaferrata coat-of-arms is depicted at bottom right, announcing their patronage of the cathedral church.
The European Union co-funded project, focussed on the conservation actions required to ensure the long-term preservation of the fresco painting and apse. The interventions sought to reverse and mitigate deterioration and damage sustained to the pictorial layers, and address the underlying causes for detachment and deterioration. The conservation actions are ensuring the long-term protection and enjoyment of this artistic heritage lying in the heart of the community.
Visitors Opening Hours:
Refer to parrocci.knisja.mt/parrocca for full details.
How to arrive:
Refer to Malta Public Transport website: www.publictransport.mt