What led the community to build the Parish Church of Zejtun?
Prior to the existing parish church of Zejtun, there was what is now called the Old Parish Church of Zejtun, or more commonly known as the Church of Saint Gregory, a reference name gained due to the presence of a statue of Pope Saint Gregory the Great situated close to the church. The details concerning the construction of this church are unknown, but several architectural parts of the church indicate that parts of it were built in the 15th century while others have been constructed in the following century. By the end of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th century, the population of Zejtun has seen considerable growth. This growth resulted in the then parish church of Zejtun to become not fit for purpose, thus serious thought started to be made about the need of a church which could serve a growing population.
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The primary event that set on tracks the idea of the construction of a new parish church started all due to a reason that the then noble ones of the community strived to become well known. Thus, with the wish of becoming known and also to be remembered for centuries, it was Gregorio Bonici who signed a contract which showed that a land known as tal-Chasira was to be donated to the church to serve as the site to erect what would become the new parish church of Å»ejtun. This contract can be said to have been a very generous one, as the donated site, which also had the advantage of being in the centre of Å»ejtun, could not only be the place for a new monumental church, but it also had the space for a sacristy, an oratory, and also a wide church square. To reaffirm the importance that benefactors gave towards their want to be remembered during these ages, in the case of the parish church of Å»ejtun, apart from Gregorio Bonici there was before also another citizen whom donated land to the church, but this land was considered as not being a preferable one due to the constrains it held and also because of its distance away from the centre of the town, which was really important at that time since it had to serve for the whole community at a time in which there was no reliable way of transportation. Also, the Testaferrata family, the heirs of Gregorio Bonici, owned an altar in the main crypt of the church. But for baron Bonici this was not his last donation, he wanted to be sure that this project moved smoothly and reached its’ stage of completion, thus he continued to inject money towards the financing of the project up to a maximum of thirty years after he and his wife had died, as is found written in his secret will.
The first step to make this project materialise saw its initiation by the design of the renowned architect Lorenzo Gafa’. This can be seen in the visitation report of Cocco Palmier of 1693, listing Lorenzo Gafa’ as the designer of the plan of the new church and which by that time he had already started working on the eastern side of the church. Almost nothing can be said regarding the years that followed, as the result of research that has been made in this regard is that there are no reports on what was happening and the progress of the project. Another important item which leaves a void when it comes to discussing about the primary stages of construction, an item which most probably has been lost, is the original set of plans of Lorenzo Gafa’. The research done by Giulia Privitelli in her dissertation ‘THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST. CATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA IN Å»EJTUN: AN ARCHITECTURAL APPRAISAL’ has resulted in the finding of documents located in the archives of the Cathedral Museum of Mdina, which although doesn’t consist of the actual plans of Gafa’, there is a document which lists three important dimensions, those of the width and length of the nave, and also the dimension of the transept. These dimensions are recorded in palmi and although some discrepancies can be found when it comes to converting these dimensions to meters, they come really close to the actual sizes. Taking as an example the length of the nave (without the apse), it is recorded as was supposed to be 182 palmi, which converts to 46.6m, of which there is a different of only 1.9m from the actual size, measured as 44.5m. If we were to take these measurements as being what Gafa’s plans consisted of, the outcome would have been a latin-cross shape church, a form which was starting to gain popularity with the Maltese community. With such information, it is commonly understood that the existence of other parts of the church, such as the side-aisles, were later additions and not part of Gafa’s original plans.
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It was the 25th of November 1692, when Gregorio Bonici and the rest of the local community, have seen the mark of the start of the construction on site, for a building that the locals of Å»ejtun felt a great need of. On that day, Bishop Cocco Palmier placed a medallion which exhibited his coat of arms, inside a lead box which was put at the foundation of the church.
With the work of Guilia Privitelli, today we have a new perspective regarding the architecture of the parish church of Å»ejtun. Privitelli’s dissertation, in contrast with the other previously published literature, does not only take into consideration the early designs of Lorenzo Gafa and his artistic sources. The dissertation takes into account; the later additions/alterations done to the church and how these additions/alterations have been affected by the already present structure. What has also rarely been given enough importance, is that several years have passed from when the project started until it was completely finished to the current form it is today. Throughout these years, the leadership of this project has been transferred from one person to another, and with such change that already by itself brings a change in the way the project manager thinks and works, there is also the factor of what became fashionable and aesthetically more preferred at the time of a certain construction phase. When such factors are given equal importance in a published literature, then one can start to make comparisons regarding the architectural designs and ornamental details that came out at different periods and under different project managers.
To give a further different perspective, this paper will be laid out as if one making a tour around the parish church of Å»ejtun, of which first the exterior will be discussed and then the focus will turn about the interior of the church.
As stated already before, the parish church of Å»ejtun has the form of a Latin-cross, it is a church which has a size which is considerably bigger than those churches which have been previously built. One might think that this idea of building in the form of a Latin-cross was due to the influences brought to us by the Knights of St. John. This is true, but there was also an idea which emmerged from one of the most important ecumenical council of theRoman Catholic Church, the Council of Trent. Although the council didn’t give instructions on the way in which a church had to be built, it gave a pattern in which the main altar-space had to be flanked by transepts which were usually made externally visible. When discussing about the parish church of Zejtun, one can debate about whether the church still holds a true typology of a Latin-cross or not, and this is mainly due to the later additions of the oratory building and also the side isles which made the exterior of the church look completely different then it was intended to be by Lorenzo Gafa.
A characteristic which is often recognized regarding the façade, is the proportion between the width and the height, in which the horizontality is greater than the width with a total ratio of 1.51:1, composed of seven bays divided vertically in two equal parts (while excluding the bell towers and the frontispiece). The verticality gained through the use of Doric pilasters on the lower tier and the Ionic pilasters directly above, which reach along the whole façade creating the already noted seven bays, is lessened with the presence of continuous entablature, thus strengthening the already strong horizontality characteristic. It should be noted though that if we excluded the late extension of the sides, the façade would have most probably consisted of only the middle three bays, thus the sense of horizontality would have been totally not present with a height to width ratio completely the opposite from the current existing façade. All three doors of the façade along with the two statue niches above the small side doors have a triangular pediment, while the stained glass window above the main door has an arched pediment, also it can be said that the frontispiece has a broken arched pediment. The frontispiece is made of a marble tablature written in the year 1720, and it serves to commemorate the dedication of this church towards Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This frontispiece stands in the middle of two statues, representing Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in which at first were the only statues ornamenting the façade of the Å»ejtun Parish Church. It was around the 1880s that the façade was also ornamented with two other statues in the niches directly above the small side doors, allegorically portraying faith (‘Fede’) and hope (‘Speranza’).
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It was around 1779 that the side-aisles of the Å»ejtun Parish church were constructed, thus going from the initial three middle bays, to the current existing seven bays façade. At the time during the 18th century, it was a known factor that churches wanted to portray a truly greater dominant appearance over the surrounding, thus the easiest way this could be gained, since also the site permitted for such project especially in the case of the parish church of Å»ejtun, was the addition of the side-aisles. The proposal for such project wasn’t granted permission based on the idea that the church wanted to mark further monumental dominance, but the issue of serious need of lateral support reinforcement was brought forward based on the fear that there was the possibility that the nave could collapse. This was the thought of Giuseppe Bonnici together with a number of architects. Although this large extension was surely not totally needed to simply reinforce the nave supports, when the factors of; viability, need for expansion due to the growing community and also the aesthetically pleasing appearance this project could have provided, were taken into consideration, the permission was fully granted. This extension of the side-aisles brought with it several changes, such as the small domes on the sides, which have the function of letting light into the church along with the several stained glass windows on the sides of the nave. Also there was the construction of an arched buttress screen. This project has usually been understood that it had been completed on the 3rd of May 1779 due to the fact that one can find this date engraved on one of the flying buttresses, which most probably was the last flying buttress to be built.
What remains to be discussed when it comes to the west side of the church are the bell towers. It must be understood that even as said before, initially the façade of the parish church of Å»ejtun was totally different due to the fact that only the nave was existent, though this doesn’t mean that there were no bell towers. When looking at the thickness of the transept walls, at their internal circular walls it is noticed that these could have been what remains of the bell towers that existed at the transepts.
The architectural idea of creating two bell rowers on the facade was not very popular in the early seventeenth-century churches and Gafa’s later church designs, but the Maltese were made to change their mind as this feature of a two-towered western facade was implemented to the Mdina Cathedral.
The reason for which the location of the bell towers of the parish church of Å»ejtun was changed to the current position, is seen to be a forceful one, and the main cause was due to the bad state in which the bell towers had ended. It is said that the element which wind forces from the north-west direction. The number of bells which have been placed in these bell towers goes up to fourteen, spanning just over three hundred years. Today, the bell tower on the right houses the five fully functioning bells, four of which have been produced in 2005, while another (‘Antonia’) was founded in 1947 and shill has a good tonal sound, all of which have been done by the British company John Taylor.
Although it has been said that the bell towers have been badly affected by the wind, up to the point of needing reconstruction, on the contrary, at that time the dome was still fully structurally stable and didn’t need to be changed or restored. But the current dome of the Parish Church of Å»ejtun isn’t the original one which was designed by Lorenzo Gafa, instead, the old lantern-less dome had to be dismantled and rebuilt, based on the design of Joseph Zahra. It was in early 20th century that the original dome was deemed to be structurally not safe, and was thus dismantled, with Zahra’s design taking over. Though the dome has been reconstructed (while totally not following Lorenzo Gafa’s design), the original dome drum has been kept. It can be easily noticed that the current dome design followed no geometrical order so as to make it a unified element together with the Lorenzo’s dome drum. The diameter of the dome has been recorded to be about 11.61m, just about 0.04m less than the dome of the Mdina Cathedral.
Apart from the two stone sculptures representing allegorical figures of Faith and Hope which have already been discussed, one can find another exception made to figurative sculptural decoration. On the north and south facades of the church one can find bull-like antefixa. These figures, although they are water spouts which have been modified, can be compared to the well-known “tongue-masks”, which are figures that are created so as to help in keeping away evil spirits. These type of “tongue-masks”, with wide and bulging eyes and a flat and widened nose have become widely popular in Malta during the stay of the Order of Saint John. During the early 19th century this sculptural tradition, together with its symbolic significance, started to lose its popularity within the Maltese community.
Upon entering into the parish church of Zejtun, one can realize the large proportions of the interior. When compared to churches form the primary generation, it can be said that the proportions of the parish church of Zejtun are of substantial difference and the nave can be considered as a good example. The nave usually had an area which covered a span which was twice as long as it was wide, but in the case of Zejtun’s church, the measurement ratio is 1:2.46, giving a stronger eastern momentum when standing on the inside. A greater nave height and internal illumination was obtained due to the approach adopted for the roofing system, which was introduced into the Maltese community by Francesco Buonamici. What can also be noticed about the nave of the parish church of Zejtun is that it has a characteristic of continuity. This characteristic is present due to the attic pilasters that follow the same vertical lines as those created by the giant pilasters at the nave level, creating a strong form of unity between the lower and upper part of the church.
During the time in which the side-aisles were not constructed, the arches that open from the nave, incorporated altars in them. These altars were later moved backwards due to the extension of the side-aisles. All the side-aisles altars are composed in the same way, built all in a niche-like composition, with the lateral sides of these ‘niches’ decorated with paintings. One interesting feature is that they are placed within the thickness of the side-aisles’ walls, a feature which makes the side-altars different from the altars at the transepts and those of the choir.
Some features are common for all the altars of the church, even the main altar. All the altars are elevated by two steps, holding a symbolic meaning that one must look or reach upwards, making the observer spiritually feel that there is a force which is much greater than him. Also all altars have their own, or share between them, a cupola, in which case the side-aisle’s altars have one cupola each, which is the same as those of the choir and the transepts, but of a smaller scale and which are less decorated. Eleven of the altars have a pleasing form of architectural and sculptural framework, of which can be in some way considered as being of a Baroque style, although the altars of the choir and the transepts are a bit over-elaborated to be totally considered as of the Baroque style.
In conclusion, it can be said that when one tours around and inside the parish church of Zejtun dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one is touring a church of which throughout its construction has fallen in the hands of several designers, most of which have influenced the final form of the church. The different hands, and the years taken for the completion, have resulted in the construction of a monumental building, a building of which surely can better serve as the new spiritual meeting place for the community of Zejtun, and a monument which the local community thinks that is the building which truly honours its dedication to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.