“Il-Kollezzjonist”: documentary about the Catacombs of St. Agatha – Rabat (Malta)

We are very happy to share the episode on the museum of the Complex of St. Agatha (Rabat, Malta) of the documentary “Il-Kollezzjonist”, created and presented by Raymond Saliba (a contribution to this site by Raymond can be read here).

The whole episode is available here. It is in Maltese language, but the images of the collection are pure bliss!

Congratulations to our friend Raymond for this beautiful episode.

Il-Kollezzjonist (The Collector) is a series of short documentaries that take the audience on a journey to explore some of the most beautiful private collections in the Maltese and Gozitan islands. It is presented by Raymond Saliba and Sharp Shoot Media Ltd. Il-Kollezzjonist started on the 30th December 2020, and is on air every Wednesday at 6.30pm on Television Malta. Follow the programme here.

Rev. Victor Camilleri and St. Agatha’s – by R. Saliba

***We are happy to share a biographical remembrance of Brother Victor Camilleri and his work on the enhancement of the catacombs of St. Agatha in Rabat (Malta), written by our friend Raymond Saliba (Cathedral Museum, Mdina). Thank you Raymond!
Follow Raymond’s work at http://www.facebook.com/kollezzjonist/

Rev. Victor Camilleri was the pioneer in making the historic complex of Saint Agatha in Rabat (Malta), what it is today. Born in Senglea on October 13, 1933, he entered the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSSP) at a young age and became a priest on April 2, 1960. He passed away on the 15th of December, 2011. 

The St. Agatha complex is located on the outskirts of the old capital city, where we find the largest amount of catacombs on the Maltese islands. Along with the Pauline catacomb complex, St. Agatha’s offers a kaleidoscopic of pagan; Christian, and Jewish hypogeous, along with a unique underground chapel that included an altar decorated with paleochristian frescos. This historic complex is made up of the church and crypt of St. Agatha; the convent and motherhouse of the MSSP; the SPCM collage; St. Agatha’s Museum and many underground cemeteries. 

Fr. Camilleri, who from an early age was interested in local history, find much to be drawn to when he joined the religious community at St. Agatha’s, particularly, archeology. During the time of his formation to the priesthood, together with some of his colleagues, in his spare time, he embarked on the cleaning of several small hypogeous discovered under the convent. Although there has always been part of the catacombs attached to the crypt accessible to the public, most of the underground complex we see today was closed or not even excavated. It was also Fr. Victor who discovered several 5th-century frescos on some Christian tombs. 

From 1978 onwards, Fr. Camilleri became part of St. Agatha’s community again. At first, he began to think seriously about setting up a museum to collect and conserve objects that were in the personal collection of Mons. Joseph de Piro, the Society founder, as well as many objects which belong to the church of St. Agatha. In 1985 he assumed the curatorship of both the church and museum after he was already doing tours of the catacombs. The clean-up of small catacombs, which were found under the new SPCM collage, also continued under his direction. Apart from the daily work as a priest and curator, he indulges in the study and writing about this important complex and its treasures. He published four books and numerous articles in local journals and newspapers, and also planned the said complex, which covers some 4,100 square meters. 

Raymond Saliba

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)

Giovanni Francesco Abela and the catacombs of Malta: new book!

This book is one of the latest outcomes of our research project. This book offers a new vision of the role played by Giovanni Francesco Abela, the father of Maltese historiography, in the rediscovery of Christian antiquities in Malta and in the
development of private antiquarian collection in early-Baroque times.
It also contributes to the definition of his international figure as European scholar, deals with the museological content of his masterpiece Della Descrittione di Malta, and offers the transcription of many archival texts about Abela’s life and work.

In the following articles we will address some of the topics discussed in this book, stay tuned! In the meantime, here you are the table of contents!

Chiara Cecalupo, Giovanni Francesco Abela. Work, private collection and birth of Christian archaeology in Malta. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2020

This book is on sale here. Regular price €12,00.