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The parish church of the Immaculate Conception

Undoubtedly the main strength of this city-fort is its faith in God and deep love for the Virgin Mary. Since its earliest documented existence, it seems that Cospicua always had the Virgin Mary as its prime patroness. Its rise to fame started inside a rock. An early centre of devotion was a cave dedicated to Our Lady of Help (Succour), known as St. Helen (Santa Liena). The devotion to this saint, responsible for the name of the nearby gate, is probably due to the corruption of Chantereine (Santarena), which sounds like Santa Liena. This underground chapel was revealed during the clearing operation from the war rubble. The chapel appears to have been troglodytic with the chancel and the apse cut into the side of the cliff.

 

But the first parish church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady consisted of a small chapel on the hill known as L-Għolja tal-Ġonna (The Hill of the Gardens). It was subsequently enlarged and embellished, especially after 1627 – 30. During the term of office of parish priest Gian Maria Barbara, around 1680, a new church started to be built on the same site. In 1686 architect Lorenzo Gafa` was commissioned to design its steeple. Owing to various problems, including the bad effects of the plague of 1676, years of drought and poverty, as well as delayed decisions about some side chapels, this church took years to build. In fact it was only completed by 1732, when it was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Alpheran de Bussan.

 

A Collegiate Church

 

Church FrontA great benefactor who contributed generously towards the building of the church was Rev. Diego Ciantar. Later on, on 17 July 1822, Pope Pius VII proclaimed the erection of this parish church into a Collegiate Church. Its titular painting is the work of painter Pietro Paolo Caruana, who was inspired by Mgr. Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi, a poet theologian that paid for the canvas and then donated it to the parish church. It is now framed within the opulently designed marble façade executed by the Italian Federico Bonetti. Quite apart from its rich theological contents, it has been well and truly observed that this painting bears a prophetic iconographic detail in that Our Lady is shown in a white dress with a light blue sash around her waist, exactly as she was to appear to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858. Blessed Rev. George Preca had a special devotion for this painting, which inspired him to write a litany in honour ofCardinal Tedescini the Virgin Mary.

 

In 1905, as delegate of Pope Pius X, Cardinal Domenico Ferrata crowned this titular altarpiece, which was further embellished by a silver halo of stars in 1955, when the Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Cardinal Federico Tedeschini came to Cospicua to lead the festivities of the Marian Year on the first centenary of the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in the mid-nineteenth century. In the heart of the citizens of Cospicua, and in effect of all Maltese, the Collegiate Church of the Immaculate Conception has continued to enjoy a special place.

 

An artistic gem

 

The parish church stands majestically on the hill, where, according to pious legend, the Blessed Virgin appeared to free a little child from the devil’s clutches. A true gem and a rich repository of artistic treasure, the present parish church is renowned for sumptuous silver artifacts, such as candlesticks, apostle motifs, missals, antependia, a monstrance packed with Kampnardiamonds and a refined monstrance throne, its artistically executed altarpieces and the gold-embroidered velvet altar cloths that adorn its numerous altars on feast days. Besides its titular altarpiece, this church also flaunts several other paintings by well known past masters, notably Alessio Erardi, Gian Nicola Buhagiar, Francesco Zahra, Rocco Buhagiar, Virginio Monti and Giuseppe Cali`, who painted the remarkable figures of the four main Old Testament Prophets on the pendentives underneath the main dome, and the pictures on the vault of the nave.

 

Tradition asserts that the original processional statue of the Immaculate Conception was sculpted in wood around 1680 by Suor Maria De Domenicis, a Carmelite Tertiary and a pupil of Mattia Preti and later on in Rome, of Carlo Maratta, head of the Accademia di San Luca. She carved the statue from the trunk of a carob tree, on which Our Lady is said to have appeared. However, practically nothing of the original statue exists today, for in 1905 it was sent to Milan at the Firm Antonio Ghezzi e Figlio – then a highly quoted firm – to be totally covered in silver, except for the head, hands and feet. Cospicua-born Abram Gatt (1863 – 1944) was responsible for this almost complete transformation of the statue, for the design on which the Italian firm worked was prepared by him.

 

ArtalMoreover this church possesses other noteworthy statuary by some of the most eminent sculptors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Also by Abram Gatt is the wood statue of St. Joseph (1903), which is considered as his masterpiece. The statuary group of the Baptism of Jesus (1814) and St. Michael (1819) are both by Mariano Gerada who, though of Tarxien, spent most of his working life at Cospicua. Our Lady of the Rosary (1828) and St. Agatha (1846) are both the work of Pietro Paolo Azzopardi, whereas St. Andrew is the work of Salvatore Psaila. The oldest piece of wood sculpture in this church surely remains the famed Crucifix of Candia, probably a late medieval work, brought to Malta after the Siege of Candia in Crete in 1669. Such was the tremendous devotion that it enjoyed in the past, that a spacious chapel was purposely built for it.

 Kandja Cross

 

Contiguous with the parish church is the Oratory of the Crucifix, which was built between 1731 and 1735. It contains four sculptural groups, namely Christ in Gethsemane, the Flagellation, the Crowning with Thorns and Christ with the Veronica. They were executed by Francesco Fabri and Pietro Paolo Zahra. The altarpiece, by Francesco Zahra, features Christ’s Descent from the Cross.

Cospicua has numerous secondary churches.

 

 

 

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