Excavation of the Maltese Catacombs of St. Agatha Revealed Some of the Finest 12th and 15th century Frescos in Europe!
Located just some 60 miles of the coast of Sicily, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean lie the Maltese Islands. The three small islands are Malta, it's sister island of Gozo and the small island of Comino. Sitting as Malta does in the center of the Mediterranean, it has been colonized and invaded repeatedly since man first discovered the art of boat building. Until it became independent in 1964, Malta has been occupied at different times by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spaniards, crusading Knights, the French and eventually the British, whose indistinguishable mark remains indelibly stamped on Malta. Over 7000 years ago the first settlers found their way from Sicily and settled in caves (5500 BC) the remains of which are still visible today.
The Maltese Catacombs Uncovered
M'dina is the ancient capital of the Island and it was in the neighboring city of Melite where St. Paul is said to have lived after his shipwreck on the island in AD 60.
1957, Dr Peter J Shields (3 rd left) with Fr. Victor (1 st left) at St. Paul's Grotto, Melite. (Image: Courtesy Peter J. Shields)
In the early 1950's whilst Associated Press's representative in Malta I was privileged to meet and befriend in the course of my work, Father Victor Camilleri MSSP. He was unquestionably one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the ancient catacombs and curator of the amazing Museum, which he created at St. Agatha's until his untimely passing a few years ago.
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Dr Peter J Shields and Father Victor Camilleri MSSP, 2010. (Image: Courtesy Peter J. Shields)
The Maltese Catacombs were never meant to be hiding places during persecutions or as living quarters. They were underground cemeteries consisting of long narrow corridors with tombs on each side and vaults. Some of the tombs are also decorated with relief's and frescoes. It is an underground basilica, which from early ages was venerated by the Maltese.
Entrance to the St. Agatha catacombs, Malta. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
There is little doubt that the Frescos of St. Agatha's are the finest in Malta and perhaps Europe and should not be missed at any cost. Tucked away in the narrow streets of Rabat (opposite St. Paul's Catacombs) and only a few hundred yards from my old house, you will find the entrance to this amazing experience. Though situated opposite Malta's most famous St. Paul's catacombs, there is no comparison as St. Agatha's contains the remarkable frescos and unique museum maintained by the Missionary Society of St. Paul.
The Grotto. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
According to legend Agatha, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajanus Decius (AD 249-251), together with some of her friends, fled from Sicily, her native land, and took refuge in Malta. Some historians believe that her stay on the island was rather short, and she spent her days in the crypt at Rabat, in prayers and teaching the Christian Faith to the children. After some time, Agatha realized that it would be better for her, to return to her native land and witness for her faith there, even at the risk of martyrdom.
Fresco of St. Agatha. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
On landing in Sicily, Agatha was arrested and brought before Quintanus, praetor of Catania, who condemned her to torture and imprisonment. After a few days, on the 5th of February 251, she died in prison as a martyr.
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Frescos in the crypt of St. Agatha. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
The crypt where she used to pray was named after her, as were the nearby Catacombs and later on the Church now located over the crypt. The crypt of St. Agatha is hewn in live rock.
Frescoes at the crypt of St. Agatha. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Representations of the Martyrdom of St Agatha
At the time of St. Agatha's stay, the crypt was a small natural cave which later on, during the 4th or 5th century, was enlarged and embellished. At the far end of the crypt, there is the main altar dedicated to the Saint. Till 1647, this altar was still used for worship. When Lucas Buenos was bishop of Malta (1664-1668), he visited this sacred place, and donated to the crypt an alabaster statue, representing the saint undergoing her martyrdom.
Statue of St. Agatha. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Both breasts had been severed from her body. It is a fine work of art, sculptured in Trapani, and represents the Saint tied to a tree trunk and a small puttino is holding a crown of roses above her head. The statue is set on a baroque pedestal within which, there is a tiny statue of the Saint put on fire. Nowadays, this statue can be admired in the Museum. In its place on the alter, there is a new fiberglass statue of the saint, the work of the Maltese artist, Anton Agius. In the acts of the pastoral visit by Mgr Pietro Duzina in 1575, there is recorded that there were many altars in the crypt.
St. Agatha from the Valletta Palace collection. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Nowadays, only two remain. The main altar and a side altar dedicated to Our Lady, Mother of Divine Grace. On the walls of the crypt there are still remaining a good number of frescoes.
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Fine frescoes at the catacombs and crypt of St. Agatha. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Some of them date back to the 12th century and are in Byzantine style. The others, which are in Greek style, date back to the 15th century (1480). There are 30 images of saints, out of which, 13 represent St. Agatha. The remainder represent bishop saints, virgin and martyr saints. The 15th century frescoes are attributed to the Sicilian painter Salvatore D'Antonio. These were donated to the crypt by various devotees, offered in thanksgiving. Other paintings are still visible in the ceiling at the entrance on the right-hand side.
Occupants of the Tombs
Most of the tombs were used for the internment of two people. Sometimes a double tomb has a thin wall separating one from the other. At times they are put side by side, and not only two, but even three, four or five persons were buried in the same grave. In almost all graves there is found the head rest, a sort of rock pillow. In each grave there is a semicircular cavity where the head of the deceased person is rested in its position. These cavities indicate how many people were buried in each grave.
Double occupation is the norm for the tombs. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
The Agape Table
One of the most remarkable features in the Maltese Catacombs is the Agape Table, probably used as a table for the final farewell repast. This is a round table hewn out of the live rock about 60cm (23.6 inches) or more above ground level. These tables slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the chamber. At the upper part they form the round table, flat and encircled with a rim about 6cm (2.4 inches) wide and 3cm (1.2 inches) high. Generally these tables are about 75cm (29.5 inches) in diameter. On the front part, a small section of the rim is opened. Probably this served to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.
Agape table, a raised area, probably use for the final farewell repast. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Features of the Maltese Catacombs
The different types of tombs are another feature that distinguishes the Maltese Catacombs. The most important of all is the "saddle-back canopied table grave". The upper part of the tomb, that is the cover, is like a saddleback of a horse, which was either cut from the same rock or was placed when the internment took place. The canopy above is supported by four short pillars ending in arches on the four sides. At the back of each pillar, on the internal side of the tomb, there are horn like pillars as a decoration.
Another type of grave is the "canopied table grave" in Italian known as ‘tomba a baldacchino’. These are also cut in the rock and have four pillars to support the ceiling above, while forming arches on each side of the tomb. These make a sort of canopy above the grave. When the funeral was over and the grave sealed with stone slabs, it seemed to form a table, hence its name. The arcosolium is so called because at the entrance of the tomb, it has an arch and a sill (L. solium). Such graves are cut within the sidewalls. The back of the arch is a sort of half a dome. The entrance to these graves is through a square opening about 45 cm (17.7 inches) each side, while the grave itself is hidden by the wall. Window graves are very similar to the arcosolium, except that the back is flat within the vault.
The entrance is also similar. Loculi are side graves hewn in the sidewalls. Most of these were meant for children and babies. At times many of these are found near each other and very near to a parent tomb, indicating that they belong to the same family. Small niches can be seen cut in the sidewalls. These were most probably used to hold an oil lamp to light the catacomb and many niches still bear soot marks to this day.
Loculi are side graves hewn in the sidewalls. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
Two of the tombs at St. Agatha's Catacombs are decorated with mural paintings. On the wall near the head of one of these tombs, there is a Greek inscription, which states:
"Before the Calends of September, Leonias was buried here."
This inscription has suffered through negligence throughout the years and it is difficult to read.
The other tomb, which is a table grave, is decorated with frescoes that were hidden under a layer of 6cm (2.4 inches) of mortar. A colored frieze goes around the edges while a pelican in red ochre is seen on each side. On the inner sides, there are floral wreathes with pink roses, green leaves and three roses in the center of the wreath. It seems that on the back of the grave there are more frescoes which still lie hidden by more mortar.
The Inner Sanctuary of St Agatha
One of the chambers in these catacombs seems to have been the Sancta Sanctorum, of these Christian catacombs. I will never forget the day we broke through the rubble and discovered what is now considered Malta's first church.
One chamber in the catacombs, seems to be the inner sanctuary chapel or Sancta Sanctorum. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
It has a radius of 275cm (108 inches) and is decorated with a pillar on each side. There is a capital on top of the pillars which are joined with a frieze which goes all round the chamber. On one side there is an arch, which was the altar of this primitive chapel.
3rd century fresco in the inner chapel of the Maltese Catacombs. (Image: Peter J. Shields)
It is decorated with a 3rd century fresco representing a scallop shell painted in various colors: red, ochre, dark green, yellow and pale yellow. The front lintel is painted in dark red and dark brown. It symbolizes the source of life that is God. In the middle there is a cross with the Greek letter R (rho) with a horizontal line passing through its middle, an artistic variation of the Greek letter C (chi), and this symbol signifies Christ. On the ends of the horizontal line, there are the A and W (alpha and omega) which signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of life (cfr: Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Apart from the flowers, on both sides of the fresco, there is a dove with leaves or flowers in its claws. This is the best fresco that exists in the Catacombs and it is of the earliest age of our Christian era.
Fr. Victor Camilleri MSSP., the priest who was largely responsible for maintaining and excavating this remarkable piece of history was a dear friend for over 50 years! His passing was a great loss to all who had the privilege of knowing and working with him. Dr. David Trump, Cambridge University’s lead archaeologist also left us last year and will also be greatly missed.
Top image: Frescos in the crypt of St. Agatha, including the outstanding inner chapel altar and fresco (center). (Images: Provided by Peter J. Shields)
Dr Peter Shield is the author of “ The Maltese Shroud ”, which is available on Amazon
Peter, that's interesting, thanks for a wonderful article. The 3rd-century fresco seems to harp back to earlier beliefs, especially among island folk. The dove's passage across, about a flowing tree of life. What is your interpretation of the figure from which this stems and the objects in hand? Do you know the cardinal directions of this inset? Thanks, Nick