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Two significant Cospicua
paintings restored

E. Fiorentino

A couple of highly important paintings were recently unveiled afresh in the chapel of the former St. Joseph Conservatory in Cospicua following their restoration by four members of ReCoop, the restoration and conservation co-operative which is based in Corradino.

ReCoop consists of a group of young restorers, all of them graduates from the Centre of Restoration at Ta’ Bighi in recent years, who have been doing sterling work in a number of projects in Malta. Those involved in the Cospicua project were Paul Muscat, Agatha Grima, Roderick Abela and Anne Christine Reiger.

The Holy Family with St. Anne. Photo Courtesy of Mr. Paul Muscat - RecoopThe two works show respectively The Holy Family with St. Anne, the main altarpiece, which is attributed to the famous Neapolitan artist Sebastiano Conca, and The Deposition of Christ, a side altarpiece, which comes from the workshop of Mattia Preti. Though the latter painting served to extend the corpus of works known in Malta which are linked to the great Il Calabrese, the former is possibly the more quoted of the two. Born in Naples in 1679, Sebastiano Conca became a pupil, as a portraitist, of Francesco Solimena, nicknamed L’Abate Ciccio, who was considered in his time as one of the greatest living artists.

In 1706, Conca was in Rome where he was commissioned to do a number of frescoes in several churches. Subsequently he worked for the Elector of Cologne as well as for the kings of Spain, Portugal, Sardinia and Poland.

His last years were spent in his native Naples where he died in 1764. He achieved wide recognition as a master who contributed substantially to the development of late Baroque painting.

The attribution of the Cospicua painting to Conca, which we find in Descrizione Storica delle Chiese di Malta e Gozo (1866) by Achille Ferres, is probably founded on oral tradition, though one cannot exclude the hypothesis that some document could be unearthed in future by way of confirming his authorship.

But apart from that remote eventuality, it is abundantly clear that the painterly qualities contained in this work are closely attuned to what is known about his authentic or documented production.

It is a highly charming painting. At the centre is a seated Madonna holding her infant Son who in turn leans towards a kneeling St. Anne who is gently kissing his hand as a sign of her acknowledgement of His divine singularity. As with so many other paintings of this genre where the Holy Family is involved, St. Joseph stands meekly away in the obscure background on the right-hand side by way of underlining his secondary role in man’s redemption.

The painting immediately strikes the spectator for its harmony and those serene qualities that stem not simply from the nature of the subject itself but also through its balanced composition. Though I would say it is relatively little known among the art-loving public, it is in fact widely considered among art connoisseurs as one of the best paintings in Malta.

As far as I know the only other painting by Conca that exists in Malta, showing Our Lady with the Infant Christ and the young St. John the Baptist, is housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. It was donated to Grand Master Pinto in 1744 by the Apostolic Delegate and Inquisitor, Paolo Passionei. In my opinion, the Cospicua painting is of better quality than the one in Valletta.

Assuming that the Conca attribution for the Cospicua painting is correct, and taking into account the fact that the St. Joseph Conservatory chapel was built in 1810, almost 50 years after Conca’s death, it would be clear that the Cospicua painting could not have been done specifically for the chapel. Maybe it arrived there as a donation after the completion of the chapel, but on that I have no information whatsoever.

While the Conca painting belongs to the 18th century, the other restored painting is datable to the late 17th century. It is definitely a work that was done locally.

According to John T. Spike, a foremost authority on Mattia Preti, the design belongs to the great Italian master but its execution was left in the hands of his bottega.

In his Mattia Preti  -  Catalogo Ragionato dei Dipinti, published a few years ago, Spike suggests that the Cospicua painting originally hung as the titular painting inside the Oratory of the Crucifix in Cospicua before it was eventually replaced by that which we see today and which is generally attributed to Francesco Zahra.

On his part, Ferres records in his above-mentioned 1866 publication ‘una depositioneThe Deposition of Christ. Photo Courtesy of Mr. Paul Muscat - Recoopabove one of the side doors of the Cospicua parish church. So if Ferres is here referring to the same painting under discussion, which is possibly the case, and on the basis of Spike’s assumption that the painting was once inside the oratory, that would mean that this Deposition successively passed at some unknown dates from the oratory to the parish church and eventually to the chapel of the St. Joseph conservatory.

Even after the cleaning and restoration process, the painting has maintained its original darkened palette, which signifies the morbid character of the moment being depicted. In addition, I dare to think that the detail showing the face of the Madonna in the lower left-hand side could have come directly from the hand of Preti himself since it is highly reminiscent of his typical idiom.

Apparently  the painting was well known since a number of copies exist, including one in the museum of the parish church of Lija and another one in the old Lapsi church of St. Julian’s.

So unless all three paintings were separately done on some lost Preti, this should probably indicate that while the Cospicua painting is the original version, or at least the closest to the Preti workshop, the other copies were done by others who would have considered it as the source for their own work.

The chapel that houses these two paintings was built in 1810 during the bishopric of Ferdinando Mattei, though the founding of the Conservatory had been initiated by the previous Bishop Vincenzo Labini (1780 – 1807) who, together with the Discalced Carmelite Salvatore Falzon, promulgated the conservatory for the education of young women.

A few years ago, while the St. Joseph Conservatory was being structurally adapted to serve as an old people’s home, the two paintings were temporarily removed from the chapel and placed inside the sacristy of the Cospicua parish church.

Thanks to the personal initiative taken by the archpriest of Cospicua, Canon Joe Mifsud, these two quite significant works have new received due attention, thereby helping in the preservation of the artistic patrimony of the Cottonera city which incidentally is celebrating the titular feast of the Immaculate Conception on Friday.

Hopefully the chapel, situated along the route of the procession, next to St. Margaret’s Square (popularly known as Ix-Xgħajra), will be open to the public on that day so that people, both locals and outsiders, would have the opportunity to take a closer look at these two paintings.

Click here to view a presentation of the work carried out


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