Following the restoration of Mattia Preti’s splendid titular painting of the Immaculate Conception and of the St Sebastian, St Roque is the third painting by this renowned baroque artist to be given a new lease of life thanks to Din l-Art Helwa’s ambitious project of saving the Preti paintings at Sarria Church in Floriana. The painting was found to be in a perilous state of decay and its restoration has been made possible through a generous sponsorship from MSV Life.
Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary from the birth of Mattia Preti, in 2013 Din l-Art Helwa undertook to carry out the restoration of the four paintings that are in one way or another connected with the plague. The restoration project has been entrusted to Giuseppe Mantella Restauri and has been carried out with the support of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. David Curmi, CEO of MSV Life visited Sarria Church and was welcomed by Ms Maria Grazia Cassar, Executive President of Din l-Art Helwa together with other council members of the heritage organisation. Professor Sante Guido, conservator and restorer and lecturer at the University of Trento, gave a presentation on the significance of the ‘plague’ saints and the symbolism adopted by the artist in his work at Sarria. Present for the occasion were the Mayor of Floriana, Ms Davina Sammut Hili, and Councillor Dr. Matthew Paris and the Rector of Sarria Church, Fr Scerri.
“Since day one, MSV Life has always been in Floriana, so our legacy and corporate social responsibility with the place, its community, and its cultural and architectural riches go back over 20 years,” said David G. Curmi, CEO of MSV Life. “We are grateful to have been given the privilege to support the restoration of Preti’s St Roque at Sarria Church, smaller than other churches in Malta but not in its artistic significance.”
Mattia Preti, born at Taverna, in Calabria, in 1613, became official artist of the Order of St John. Having lived in Malta most of his life, he became known as ‘Il cavaliere calabrese’ and he left the island a great artistic legacy. Sarria Church was built in 1676 on the site of an earlier church constructed in 1574 which was also dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
In December 1675 there was an outbreak of plague in Marsamxetto which quickly spread to Valletta, to Senglea and by April 1676 had spread to Zurrieq. Malta lost a third of its population. Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner felt that only the divine intercession of the Immaculate Conception, with her renowned power over evil, could stop the plague and he ordered that Sarria’s small church be rebuilt in grander style as a vote of thanksgiving for her intercession. He commissioned Mattia Preti to design it and the artist in fact took charge of its building. It is the only known church in the world to have been designed and built by Preti and it houses no less than seven paintings all by him. These artistic contents, including the monumental titular painting, were designed to fit architecturally into the stone housings he created for them and all saints depicted are connected in some way with the deadly disease. In May 1676 Mattia Preti presented the Grand Master with a model of the church. The plague was halted.
St Roque is known primarily for being a pilgrim saint of the late 13th Century who gave up his noble family’s wealth to tend to the sick and needy in Europe curing victims of the black death by marking them with a cross. He is said to have survived the plague and his iconography depicts him mainly with a dog that saved his life by licking his wounds and bringing him a loaf of bread daily. His feast day is celebrated annually on August 16. The painting of Sarria bears the typical Preti flourish and energy and its russet hues still impress even today.
Maria Grazia Cassar, while thanking MSV Life for their support, said that it was Din l-Art Helwa’s mission to raise cultural awareness about the artistic legacy to be found in every corner of Malta and Gozo. Conserving the paintings at Sarria was a sure way of promoting interest in and appreciation of this wonderful church and Mattia Preti.