Kirkop Marian Site

Parish Church of St Leonard

The Parish church of Kirkop was first built in 1706 on the site of an older seventeenth-century church dedicated to St Leonard and St Mary. The Baroque church continued to be enlarged until 1862, when the belltowers were built to the design of the architect Giuseppe Cristoforo. The church is built on raised ground and is surrounded by a parvis with balustrades all around.


The seventeenth-century church was built on a simple rectangular plan, made up only of a nave. In 1706, the church gained more space when the choir was enlarged and its facade rebuilt. This is recorded by the date ‘1706’ over the window on the facade. Several other changes continued to be made until around 1779, when the dome was completed with the installation of a lantern. In 1862, belltowers were added. They are crowned with a spire around which is a balustraded parapet. These belfries replaced an older belltower which was demolished.

A few years later, in 1878, two transepts with side-chapels and the two other small chapels next to the choir, added. It was at this time that the church obtained its current form, that of a cross-shaped (cruciform) plan. Today the church is made up of the choir with its high altar, the transepts on either side, the main nave and the small chapels as well as a sacristy.

The church has three entrances, through the main doorway and the two doors giving on to the transepts. To the side of the main doorway are the stone statues of Saint Roque and Saint Leonard raised on a plinth. Directly above the door is a rectangular window is decorated with moulding and topped by a running frieze. The façade is crowned with a small triangular pediment, behind which is a parapet wall with a cross in stone. The doors to the two transepts are adorned with a frontispiece with a pair of Ionic pilasters on which rests a plain entablature and a broken triangular pediment. Resting on each end of this triangular pediment are two figure busts in low relief.

Over the main altar is the baldacchino, or canopy, made of drapery adorned by embroidery in gold thread.

On the high altar is a silver antependium or frontal, made by the Maltese firm Robinich in 1949, to a design by the Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino (1879-1947). Its central panel portrays St Leonard as the liberator of the captives, while St Remigius and King Clodovicus are seen on the side panels.

In 1790, the remains of the martyr St Benedict were donated by Pope Pius VI, at the request of the cleric Giuseppe Maria Callus. It was brought to the Parish church of Kirkop on 24 July 1791.

The titular painting over the high altar is titled St Leonard invoked by the imprisoned. In 1751, the Baroque painting was executed in oil on canvas by the Maltese artist Rocco Buhagiar (1723-1805) and is framed in gilt wood. Rokku Buhagiar’s paintings represents the more decorative form of eighteenth-century baroque art in Malta.

The painting shows St Leonard being venerated as the patron saint of prisoners. In the titular painting he is portrayed with freed captives who were perhaps once prisoners-of-war, as they kneel in thanks to the saint. The saint is depicted in the black and white habit of the Benedictine Order of which he was a member, having founded a monastery at Noblat near Limoges. As he points to the heavens, the saint’s gestures show him guiding the freed prisoners to direct their votive thanks to God the Father.

The European Union co-funded project focussed on conservation actions to ensure the long-term preservation of this historic church. The interventions sought to reverse and mitigate deterioration sustained through weathering, and pollutant processes, as well as deterioration from previous restoration interventions on the masonry. This included the consolidation of ornamental features and capitals that were decaying or highly eroded, that was leading to the loss of the aesthetic qualities of the building as well as putting at risk its structural integrity. These actions are ensuring the long-term protection and enjoyment of this historic building lying in the heart of the urban core.

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