Three historical plans of a famous Maltese catacomb

The rediscovery of Christian catacombs in the Mediterranean can also be a visual story. It is not always possible to find maps and plans of Christian cemeteries, especially dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries: this means that existing plans assume great importance for us. In this small post we propose three plans (from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) of one of Malta’s main catacombs, the cemetery of Abbatja tad-Dejr.

The catacomb of Abbatja tad-Dejr is a famous and unfortunate Christian cemetery located in the suburbs of Rabat. It consisted of several hypogea, and was revitalised in the Middle Ages by the establishment of a cult centre used for a long time, at least until late 16th century.

Today, the site is rarely accessible and is only partially preserved. However, visitors can see there important expressions of Maltese catacomb art: monumental baldacchino-tombs, carved and painted arcosolia and ceilings decorated with geometric themes.

The plan of this cemetery is the first to be drawn in the history of Maltese Christian archaeology. It appears in fact, very schematically, in the masterpiece of Giovanni Francesco Abela, the first explorer of the Maltese catacombs, the Della descrittione di Malta isola nel mare Siciliano (Malta 1647), on page 48.

The entire volume can be read here.

Both the plan published by Abela became the most famous visual description of Christian sites of Malta in Europe. A reproduction of that image can also be found in Marcantonio Boldetti’s Osservazioni sopra i cimiteri de’santi martiri ed antichi christiani di Roma (Rome 1720, page 633), that is the main work on Mediterranean Christian cemeteries of the 17th century.

The full volume can be read here.

Antonio Annetto Caruana’s more extensive investigations at the end of the 19th century allowed this important Maltese author to offer a beautiful monochrome watercolour plan, of both archaeological and artistic value.

The full volume can be read here.

And today? Today the cemetery is largely unchanged, as can be seen in the 1986 plan published in Mario Buhagiar, Late Roman and Byzantine catacombs and related burial places in the Maltese islands (Oxford 1986, page 203).

What the visitor can walk through today is, therefore, the same site seen in the early 17th century by Abela.

For more information and visits, you can contact Heritage Malta.

For a basic bibliography on the cemetery: M. Buhagiar, The Christianisation of Malta. Catacombs, cult centres and churches in Malta to 1530, Oxford 2007 (BAR Int. Series, 1674)

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