Welcome to St George’s Basilica, known as “the golden church of Gozo”, which rises at the very heart of the island.
A basilica is a church whose importance is acknowledged by Rome, the centre of the Roman Catholic Church. It was Pope Pius XII who, in 1958, raised St George’s to the dignity of basilica. There was a time when, as the first parish of Gozo, it served the whole Christian community of the island of Gozo.
This history of this church is entwined with the Christianisation of Gozo. After having survived a dramatic shipwreck in AD 60, the Apostle St Paul established Christianity in these islands, and eventually the whole islands were Christianised. This growth was helped in no small way by the settlement of Byzantine Christians who came with their priests and brought with them their favourite saints. These saints included the Most Holy Virgin and the Great Martyr George. By the sixth century St George was very popular throughout the Mediterranean and most probably it was around this time that the Gozitans started to hail him as their holy protector. They dedicated their church to him: the temple where you stand.
Here the passage of time unfolds in millennia and it flows through prehistoric temples, Phoenician deities, Roman ruler worship, Islamic salat, Jewish canticles and, over the last two thousand years, through various forms of Christian liturgy. Why various forms? Because for well over fourteen hundred years of Christianity, the walls of this church echoed to the chants of the Eastern rite and it was only in the mid-sixteenth century that the Latin form of worship brought this parish in line with the rest of the Church in Malta and Gozo.
To be sure, the walls of the church as you view them rose only towards the end of the seventeenth century (1672-1678). But they were preceded by others that supported lower arches and provided lesser shelter for what was, after all, a tiny population by comparison with today’s thirty thousand inhabitants of Gozo.
Façade and Main Door
As you approach the church from St George’s Square, you notice its huge bronze portals. They were installed in 2004 to commemorate the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 that launched the third Christian millennium, and were designed by Gozitan artist John Grima and cast at Fonderia Bonvicini of Verona. The Christian community that gathers here felt that there was no better way to commemorate the beginning of the third Christian millennium than by adorning the principal door of its church with the imagery of Christ who said: “I am the Door of salvation”. In fact, topping the portals there are the Latin words Porta Salutis, meaning that the door into the church represents Christ who is the Door… the gate or passage into the saving presence of God.
The present church, the first one in Gozo in the shape of a Latin cross, was ready by 1678, built on designs by renowned Maltese architect Vittorio Cassar. However, following several earthquakes, the façade was rebuilt in 1818 in neo-Classical style and with the addition of two belfries, which house a beautiful set of five bells cast in bronze by Fonderia Barigozzi of Milan in 1925. In the late 1930s two side aisles were added to the original structure; a statue of the Immaculate Conception and another one of St Joseph, made by Alfred Camilleri Cauchi in 1992, were added to the sides of the façade.
Entering the main doors, take a look around you: everything speaks of God. The language is that mediated by art and beauty, but the word it transmits is that of God received in Christian faith. The voice that speaks the message is, of course, that of Jesus Christ whose most revered presence, in any Catholic church, lies in the Blessed Sacrament. Catholics are expected to focus their veneration on Christ, present in the Eucharist. In this, according to Catholic belief, they are joined by the angels and saints. The vault above you, painted by Roman artist Giovanni Battista Conti in the mid-twentieth century, teems with angels and saints who bear witness with the Christians worshipping in this church to God’s glory. Foremost among the saints is the Great Martyr George in whose name this church is, from time immemorial, dedicated.
The decoration of the whole ceiling, made in pasta and stucco, is by Ġużeppi Galea of Rabat, Malta. The ceiling in the eight side chapels has both decorations in pasta and mosaic representations corresponding with the dedication of the respective altars. The remarkable stone reredoses adorning the altars in five of these chapels date back to the seventeenth century, and thankfully enough these were preserved in their entirity when the altars were moved back in the 1930s. Four wooden confessionaries in the side aisles serve for the daily administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confessions.
Christians are initiated in the life of grace through the holy sacrament of Baptism, as is shown by the Baptismal Font and the seventeenth-century inscription above it, found to the right hand side of the main door, as you enter.
The magnificent twentieth-century paintings and golden stucco that decorate the ceiling of this basilica trail its building by almost three hundred years. The painter was Gian Battista Conti of Rome, while the stucco decorator was Ġużeppi Galea of Rabat, Malta. The lower vault that runs along the main aisle and branches into the transepts to join once again into the Latin cross above the choir (behind the main altar) bears the legendary exploits of St George as they are documented in the early sixth-century panegyric of St Andrew of Greece.
George, dressed as a Roman tribune, is first seen tearing the edict issued by Emperor Diocletian in February 303 which indicted Christians with treachery against the gods of Rome and launched the Great Persecution.
The next picture is that of George, returning to his home town of Lydda, distributing his property to the poor, giving freedom to his household slaves and divesting himself of any attachment to the world.
The third depiction is that of George in the dungeon, stripped of his clothes, tied up and scourged. According to the “legend” of his martyrdom this was the first trial that he was subjected to. Many other trials awaited him and these are represented in the side transepts.
The vault of St George’s Basilica displays not only the life of its patron saint, the ministry of praise performed by the angels and the witness of saints (those flanking the windows) and the figures of the Apostles and Evangelists (above the windows), but also two events in the history of these islands when the people prayed for deliverance through the intercession of St George. These are seen in the aisles of the side transepts.
Main Altar and Dome
Standing in front of the altar you may admire the bronze canopy, cast in Italy in 1967, that evokes the famous baldacchino of Bernini, the great Renaissance artist, who not only contributed to the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and its decoration in bronze but also created that splendid colonnade that embraces the millions that flock to Rome every year. Incidentally, one of the statues that top this colonnade depicts St George, the patron saint of Gozo, England and so many other nations and localities. The white Carrara marble altar is the work of Roman sculptor Carlo Pisi, in 1960, who has other works in St George’s, including the Stations of the Cross.
Right above the altar and canopy rises the dome, which is however not the original one built in 1678. The old one suffered repeated damage by a series of earthquakes that hit the island of Gozo in the eighteenth century and it had to be torn down. It was rebuilt on the original but simplified design in 1940 and since then it once again dominated the skyline of the historic centre of Rabat. The set of eight paintings in the dome’s interior are by Gian Battista Conti and show themes from the Book of Revelation, the last in the Sacred Scriptures, which speaks of the faithful one who gives witness to the Lamb (Christ). St George gave witness of his faith in Christ by shedding his blood; in fact the Greek word martyr means “giving witness”. Conti also designed the set of stained-glass windows adorning the dome, which carry the theme of Our Lord’s Prayer.
Main Transept and Choir
The main transept behind the altar is a treasure throve of art in Gozo. The apse, painted by Conti, represents the entry of St George into the joy of heaven after his earthly sufferings, and his coronation in glory.
Below the vault is the famous canvas of the Triumph of St George by the renowned Calabrese painter Mattia Preti, commissioned in 1678 by the Governor of Gozo Fra Francesco de Cordova. It is flanked by two paintings, one of St Peter and the other of St Paul, made by Italian artist Attilio Palombi in 1906. A graceful eighteenth-century oil painting of Our Lady by Pierre Guillemin stands on the altar just beneath the main altarpiece.
Mattia Preti has two paintings in St George’s Basilica and they are among the very few examples by the master that Gozo can boast of. Preti was already an acknowledged painter when he was invited by Grand Master Raphael Cotoner to come to Malta and decorate with affresco the huge vault of the conventual church that the Knights of St John had constructed in their new city of Valletta. He spent thirty-eight years working in Malta until he died in 1699. Preti was approaching the end of his active life when he painted this centerpiece which represents St George, robed as a knight similar to that of the Military Order of Malta, glorious over the vanquished dragon.
Turning to your right, you will see a splendid painting depicting the trial of St George before the tribunal of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. It is one of two large canvases – a donation by parish priest Giacomo Galea – that complement the central one, both of them acknowledged masterpieces by Francesco Vincenzo Zahra, a Maltese eighteenth-century painter of the Preti school. On the other side, the painting depicts the final ordeal in the martyrdom of St George: his beheading. It is worthwhile to pay attention to detail, including the (Alsatian) dog representing perhaps the faithfulness of true friendship.
Around you are the old wooden choir stalls where the Collegiate Chapter meets regularly for the recitation of the Divine Office. The Chapter is a group of priests, appointed by the Bishop of Gozo, to serve as special celebrants of the liturgy in this basilica. There are several such Chapters in Malta and Gozo but this is the only one that has the bishop of the island as its head and first dignitary. You may see his stall adorned with red velvet and topped by his Episcopal coat of arms. Facing it, adorned in green velvet, is the stall of the Archpriest, the second dignitary in the Chapter, and topped by the Chapter’s coat of arms.
By special concession of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the coat of arms of the Collegiate Chapter of St George’s Basilica is the same as that of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome: the Pope. This church, in fact, is affiliated with the cathedral of Rome. This is why the principal coat of arms of the Lateran Basilica appears also on top of the bronze portals of this basilica, flanked by that of the reigning pope and of the Diocesan Bishop.
Holy Souls Transept
The transept to the left hand side of the main altar has a beautiful altar dedicated to the Holy Souls. The huge canvas is the second Preti in St George’s Basilica, and it represents Our Lady of Graces with the souls in Purgatory. The donors of the painting are seen on both sides shedding water to alleviate the souls’ suffering. Designed by Francesco V. Zahra in 1759 and crafted by the Durante family of marble-makers, the altar had been commissioned by its procurator, Can. Gian Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis, famous as the author of the first written history of Gozo. It rises above the underground crypt that was unfortunately destroyed in the early 1930s and lacks important decorations that were removed during the puritanical Alizarin period of the late 1780s, a spiritualist movement that sought a Catholic return to the original purity of the faith and destroyed many carvings in stone and marble in this church.
The vault above this altar depicts an episode in the martyrdom of St George, while the apse evokes the 1429 siege of the city of Mdina, then Malta’s capital, when according to contemporary chroniclers, St Paul, St George and St Agatha appeared above the walls of the city and aided the embattled islanders to repel the Moors seeking to conquer the island.
The niche in this transept houses a statue of St Anthony of Padua, while a wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, brought from Portugal in 1950, stands on the altar.
St Lazarus Transept
The altar of St Lazarus is the only altar in Malta and Gozo dedicated to this Biblical figure. The painting, by Italian artist Giuseppe d’Arena in 1689, shows Jesus resurrecting his friend Lazarus. Beneath the altar lie the relics of St Clement, a Roman martyr whose remains were unearthed during the eighteenth-century discovery of the catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome. The oldest confraternity in this church, with St Lazarus as patron saint, was erected around 1620 as a charitable sodality.
The vault painting in this transept shows St George subjected to the ordeal of fire. This martyrdom is, again, symbolic not only of the suffering that George was subjected to but also of Christian martyrdom as such. In fact, hagiography scholars see in the epic of St George a personification of Christian martyrdom. Just as King David, in the Old Testament, personifies the victory of Israel over the Philistines and to him is attributed all the successful exploits of his military lieutenants, so did St George come to be adorned with the various ordeals of other lesser-known martyrs.
Traditional Catholic and Orthodox doctrine includes belief in the intercession of the saints. This doctrine is more or less foreign to Christians of Protestant persuasion. According to Catholic belief, the saints, whose fidelity to God has been proven and who have thereby received power before the throne of God, moved by their love for us, do join us in our petitions before God and intercede for us.
Strong in this belief, when a terrible disease, in 1676, hit the island of Malta and threatened also Gozo, the people of our island joined in one body of prayer for deliverance and made sure that they roped St George in with them. It turned out that the pestilence kept away and the Gozitans attributed their deliverance to the saint and in thanksgiving built the church in its present form. This is what the apse in this transept represents, and you can see the knight Francesco de Cordova, who was the Governor of Gozo at the time, holding up a small model of this church to St George.
A small niche to the right of the altar in this transept holds the lovely papier-mâché statue of Our Lady of Lourdes appearing to Bernadette, made in France by Galard et Fils in 1879, only twenty years after the Marian apparitions in the small Pyrenees village.
The neo-Byzantine chapel was blessed in 2005. This chapel, which is dedicated to Christ in his Divine Love, houses the new silver tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament, made in 2007 on designs by Joseph Sagona based on the ancient pyx which had been found during the construction of the new façade of the church in 1818. This chapel is intended as a refuge for prayer, with the representation of the Crucified Christ – Pietru Pawl Azzopardi’s masterpiece – acting as a focus of contemplation. The miraculous wooden statue, made in 1848, is taken out with a set of statues representing various stations of the Way of the Cross, in the oldest Good Friday procession on the island. The chapel is targeted for decoration in Byzantine-style mosaic. Besides the practical reason already mentioned, this chapel is intended also as testimony to the universality of the Christian Church which is not confined to Christians of the Western rites but also includes the Eastern.
St George’s Chapel
This chapel hosts the titular statue of St George which is kept in a niche inlaid with gold mosaic. The statue was carved from the trunk of a tree, in 1838, by Valletta-based sculptor Pietru Pawl Azzopardi. This is the first titular statue of Gozo and it inaugurated the custom of having a processional statue in every village of the island. After 1850, in fact, every parish of Gozo followed in the steps of St George’s and commissioned its respective titular statue. As a result every parish began to organise its own festa. St George’s traditional festa, including both internal and external celebrations, climaxes on the third Sunday of July.
Facing the statue of the patron saint, there is another statue, also carved in wood, made in 1996 by Gozitan sculptor Alfred Camilleri Cauchi – another donation to St George’s Basilica. It represents the Risen Christ and is carried in procession on Easter Sunday.
The chapel also hosts two important paintings: the first is an old anonymous Volto Santo, a devotional representation of the Face of Christ as it appeared on Veronica’s veil. Just opposite is a large canvas, by portraitist Raymond Pitrè in 2003, showing the first Maltese canonised saint Dun Ġorġ Preca, who founded the Society of Christian Doctrine in the early twentieth century.
Holy Family Chapel
The altar of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is a beautiful work of art decorated with inlaid precious marble and a canvas painted by Maltese artist Giuseppe Calì in 1899. This altar, formerly dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, used to be associated with the Trinitarian Confraternity, a Medieval association of laymen who strove for the redemption of Christian slaves.
St Catherine’s Chapel
One of the oldest chapels in the basilica is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, a second-century Egyptian martyr whose remains are venerated in the Orthodox monastery of Mount Sinai. The canvas on the altar is a delightful eighteenth-century work by Giuseppe d’Arena, showing the mystic marriage of the saint with Our Lord. The polychromatic marble altar is another testimony to Maltese workmanship. The skull of St Pacificus displayed within is another relic from the Christian catacombs of Rome.
As you turn to the right you can behold the full-figure bronze monument to Bishop Joseph Pace (1890-1972), the last opus of the most important Maltese contemporary sculptor Ċensu Apap. Bishop Pace was a priest of St George’s who became one of its chief benefactors.
Another monument in this chapel is the bust of Mgr George Agius, an eminent benefactor of this basilica, who in 1956 funded the covering of its walls with precious marble. The pavement of the church is also covered in marble, dating back to 1914.
St Paul’s Chapel
This chapel is dedicated to the Apostle of the Gentiles who brought the Christian faith to the Maltese in AD 60. In this altarpiece, he is shown praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception just after his shipwreck on the island, an iconography which is quite unusual in local art. The painting is by Stefano Erardi and was commissioned in the late seventeenth century.
On the right-hand side of the altar stands a marble and bronze monument of Archpriest Alfons Maria Hili, who led the parish in the early twentieth century. As an outstanding benefactor of the basilica, he was responsible for the building of the side aisles in the 1930s.
The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, which also stands in this chapel, was made by Michael Camilleri Cauchi in papier-mâché in 1982, and donated to the basilica by Bishop Mgr Nicholas J. Cauchi, founder of the Chapter.
St Michael’s Chapel
The altarpiece is a recent mosaic copy of Guido Reni’s famous painting of the Archangel which is found in the Capuchin church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. Until 1963, this altar had an older canvas of the warrior saint which had been commissioned by parish priest Paolo Lamagna in 1688. St Michael has enjoyed a very strong cult in this community, as may be seen from the purchase of a very beautiful wooden statue made by Alessandro Farrugia in 1838, now housed in one of the parish halls. The confraternity of shopkeepers named after St Michael was established on this altar in 1809.
Jesus and Mary Chapel
In the Chapel of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary you may admire the earliest double statue in Gozo, carved in wood by Maltese artist Sigismondo Dimech between 1802 and 1807. Dimech in fact also worked together with his son Ferdinando on the decorative sculpture of the new façade in 1818, and their signatures can still be seen on one of its walls – the only such case on a church façade on the islands. The altar in this chapel has the same dedication, and the pre-1715 painting by Alessio Erardi served as a model for the statue itself.
In the year 2000 of the Great Jubilee, an authentic icon of the Incarnation of Our Lord was sent to this basilica by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as a sign of Christian unity, and is now venerated on this altar.
Gallery and Baroque Pipe Organ
The apse above the gallery at the back depicts the universal cult attributed to St George: the angels and saints hail him, the five continents of the world venerate him; all the countries are represented, with pride of place given to Malta and Gozo.
Below the apse you can see the oldest Baroque pipe organ that exists on the island of Gozo. It was built by Sicilian craftsmen in 1781 and, after substantial and expensive restoration by Italian organ builders in 1996, it has now returned to its former splendour. It is not only played during solemn liturgies but it is also sought by various concert organists that come to perform in the Maltese islands.
St George’s Basilica is renowned for its musical tradition. It enjoys the services of a splendid polyphonic choir, the Laudate Pueri, and it is the only church in Malta where Gregorian chant is sung regularly. Such world renowned choirs as the Cappella Sistina and the Canterbury choristers have given concerts of sacred music here, many of them in the context of the annual Victoria International Arts Festival that takes place between mid-June and mid-July.
Sacristy, Halls and Treasury
The Sacrestia Maior is attached to the back of the basilica: it is the main hall of the sacristy, where the priests vest for the celebration of the liturgy. The ceiling of this hall was decorated between 2000 and 2003 by Gozitan painter Paul Camilleri Cauchi. The three canvases represent three stages in the Christian history of the island of Gozo. The first one from inside depicts the Christianisation of the island, the second one the rebuilding of the parish of Gozo in 1672, and the third one the veneration of St George as patron of Gozo. A niche in this sacristy hosts the statue of St Joseph, represented here as Patron of the Universal Church; the work, in papier-mâché, was made by renowned Gozitan artist Wistin Camilleri in 1924.
The other halls which form part of the basilica complex serve as venues for several pastoral and cultural events during the year. The Aula Mgr Giuseppe Farrugia with its Grand Yamaha Concert Piano and 1785 Antunes harpsichord, and St Michael’s Hall with its nineteenth-century British pipe organ, host concerts all year round. The Aula Capitularis in the first floor is the official seat of the Collegiate Chapter and houses various precious paintings, some of which were the original altarpieces in the basilica. Many of these works of art are now being restored and will form part of the collection in the new EU co-funded museum built by the Fondazzjoni Belt Victoria. The treasury and archives of the basilica contain a rich collection of manuscripts, statuary, paintings, silverware and sacred vestments, together with many other valuable objets d’art. The parish centre was built in the late 1970s by Archpriest Emanuel Mercieca, and an extension including a new house for the clergy was added on the initiative of Archpriest Mgr Ġużeppi Farrugia between 1999 and 2005.
Thank you for visiting St George’s Basilica.
May God be with you always!
Photos: Joe Attard, Mario Casha, Toni Farrugia, JJP Zammit