Rabat Pauline Site

Parish Church of St Paul Chapel of St Anthony the Abbot

The Parish church of St Paul in Rabat was built between 1653 and 1683 to designs by the Italian architect Francesco Buonamici (1596-1677) and, after 1664, by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa’ (1639-1703). The building of the church was over an earlier fifteenth century one. Its Baroque design also had to encompass another church dedicated to St Publius on the left, in a manner that would not outshine the smaller one, which belonged to the Order of St John.

Historic Detail

The design of the facade is an innovative solution providing one visually coherent facade integrating the older sanctuary on the Grotto, and the cemetery on the left, with the new church. The identical doorways symbolised the equal importance of the 3 sacred places. Two stone statues of St Peter and St Paul adorn the parvis. These statues were executed in 1726, together with the memorial plaque commemorating the consecration of this church.

The church is part of a complex including St Paul’s Grotto, the place where St Paul is said to have been imprisoned during his sojourn in Malta. It was venerated for centuries and is the sacred place where Malta’s first Christians used to congregate. The Grotto was always the centre of widespread Pauline devotion. Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622) founded the Order’s Collegiate at this church, with several later Grand Masters and knights marking their devotion to this church. The complex also includes a Paleo-Christian catacomb linked to the grotto in which are several tombs and an agape table as well as a seventeenth-century crypt with three chapels dedicated to St Paul, St Luke and St Trofimus.


The vault painting on part of the nave portrays St Paul Preaching, and was executed after 1935 in a modern style by the Italian artist Eliodoro Coccoli (1880-1974)

The ceiling painting is found in the transept of the church, dedicated to St Anthony the Abbot. The painting portrays St Paul preaching in front of a cross, as a crowd gathers to list to him. St Paul is wearing a white tunic and red cloak, the colours of Malta. Two men approach St Paul with their hands clasped in prayer, indicating their conversion.

The refined architectural features in the painting suggest that St Paul is preaching inside a Roman city. The expansive skyscape above conveys the promise of heaven.

Below the composition is a painted cartouche with the Latin words PREDICAVIMUS IN VOBIS EVANGELIUM DEI, meaning We have preached the Gospel of God among you.

The painting is framed within an elaborately carved stone reredos which is also gilt in parts. At the four corners of the frame are angelic figures, two groups turned in prayer towards the saint, and others guiding the viewer in the church below to the scene above.


At the corner of the left transept, within the church’s side parvis, is the bell-tower. This was built as a separate structure. The largest bell was made in 1755 by John Warner. In 1923 a strong earthquake caused severe damage to this church. In November the following year, the two domes as well as the ceilings of the choir, sacristy and the two transepts collapsed. Perit Robert Galea was entrusted with their re-building, which works also included the addition of a lantern to the dome.

Titular Painting:

The titular painting portrays the Shipwreck of St Paul in Malta and was executed in 1678 by the Maltese artist Stefano Erardi (1630-1716).

St Paul is depicted at the centre of the composition, in a green tunic and red cape. In his left hand is a book, representing his biblical writings. With his raised right hand, St Paul shakes off the viper that bit him. A miracle rendered the venom harmless, seen by the surrounding men and women as they look up or step back in awe. In the background is a sinking ship as it succumbs to a storm at sea.

With this titular painting, Erardi interprets the older painting on the same subject found in St Paul’s Shipwreck Church, painted a century earlier by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio (1547-1628)

Project Information:

The European Union co-funded project, focussed on the conservation actions required to ensure the long-term preservation of the fresco paintings. The interventions sought to reverse and mitigate deterioration and damage sustained to the pictorial layers, as a result of water ingress, efflorescence and biological attachment. By stabilising, consolidation, cleaning conservation interventions that shall ensure 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