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The Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta: a True Hidden Gem

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There’s a church nestled in the heart of Valletta, which is both stunning and heart-warming. Here’s why a visit to the Church dedicated to St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta is a must!

Dedicated to the Shipwreck of St Paul the Apostle on Malta in AD60, the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck is a national treasure. It encapsulates centuries of religious heritage, artistic wealth and community spirit.

Disclaimer: As integrity would have it, this writer feels duty-bound to express his love and passion for anything and everything related to this church. He is a proud member of the parish and an active participant in St Paul’s feast. So with that out of the way, here goes!

Some historical context 

The church knows its origins to the first days of the establishment of Valletta in the 1560s. Grand Master de Valette had wanted to build a beautiful new capital right after the Great Siege of 1565.

The Cathedral Chapter of Mdina thought it would be fitting for a church to be built in Valletta. Besides being a feat of architecture, it would be dedicated to the providential shipwreck of St Paul, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (Chpt 28).

In fact, they purchased land and had local golden boy architect Girolamo Cassar to design it. Cassar was already trusted by the Knights with the design of many important projects related to the new city. It was evident from day one, that nothing but the best would do for this temple.

Once completed and the Parish of St Paul established, the church would also function as the seat of the head of the Maltese church, the Bishop, as what is today the national Co-Cathedral was then the Conventual Church of the Knights. Some healthy competition did exist between these two powerful entities, so the grandeur was guaranteed!

A work by d’Aleccio depicting Marxaslokk being attacked. Mattia Perez d’Aleccio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped.

An artistic time capsule

The Church was built in the style of the time. What’s more, it was decorated by the best artists available. Unfortunately the first edifice did not survive the centuries as the church was moved. Today, it stands in St Paul’s Street.

However, we do still have the main altar piece which was commissioned then, to none other than Michelangelo’s understudy Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, fresh from working on the Sistine Chapel in Rome!

Like many other places of interest in Malta, the church underwent substantial interventions of an artistic nature, always updating determinate elements according to the predominant style of the time. Today, the church is a veritable artistic time capsule of love and dedication of the Pauline parish, and its people.

A living museum dedicated to St Paul’s Shipwreck

The church is a real treasure-throve of artistic heritage, hosting works of the island’s best artists, as well as some who were brought over from overseas purposely for the job. The ceiling was decorated by Italian artist Attilio Palombi, who depicted romanticised episodes from the Saint’s life. Other works are by Giuseppe Calí, Giuseppe D’Arena and 20th Century prolific artist Emvin Cremona.

The church is also home to two devotional relics. Encased in a marvellous reliquary, is what is believed to be a piece of the wrist bone of the Saint. The impressive gold, silver and precious stones encrusted reliquary, represents the forearm of the saint, and is much loved by the parishioners, as it is carried in procession every feast day dedicated to St Paul.

The column on which St. Paul was beheaded. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped.

The second is a segment of the marble block. It is believed that St Paul was beheaded on it in the year 67AD. The hunk of marble was donated to the Collegiate Church by Pope Pius VII in 1817, as a sign of appreciation for the work of the Canon Chapter during the onslaught of the plague a few years earlier. Three canons succumbed to the illness while carrying out their duty, a sacrifice that was duly appreciated.

A popular tale says that the intention of the Pontif was to donate a sliver of the marble block, as is usually done in such cases. However, the Maltese went to Rome with the ornate solid silver sculpture of the severed head of the Saint, which sits atop the marble section. When the Pope witnessed their faith, he decided to give them the entire thing!

The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck from its Street Entrance.

The pièce de résistance

Possibly the most important work that resides in the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is the wooden statue of St Paul. It was sculpted by Maltese Baroque genius Melchiorre Gafa in Rome. Dubbed the finest Maltese artist of all time, Gafa left for the Eternal City at a very young age. He immediately made a name for himself, as he started getting commissions on prestigious projects in the booming city. Sadly the man died at a very young age under extremely suspicious circumstances. Some say it was rival local artists angry seeing a boy from Malta, merely in his 20s achieving such success.

Luckily, Gafa managed to complete what is possibly his magnum opus. The legendary effigy of St Paul was made in full on baroque style. What’s more, this statue revolutionised sacred art in Malta for ever.

Locals still carry the statue shoulder-high every year on the feast of the Saint. That’s when it lives and breathes for a few hours, as it is paraded around the streets of Valletta. Truly a sight not to be missed.

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