Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there’s nothing to do in Malta once you’ve seen the temples and the hypogeum. I was over there recently and took a half-day to go chapel-chasing. Armed with the book 100 Wayside Chapels in Malta and Gozo and the intrepid and very knowledgeable Mr Micallef as my guide, we set off to see what we could find.
Rumour has it that there are 365 chapels and churches in Malta – one for every day of the year. Mr M reckons this figure tops 400 and I have no trouble at all believing that. Some town squares, like Siggiewi, are framed by three churches: the original small chapel, the newer RC church, and the old chapel of the Knights of Malta. We drove up and down country lanes looking for old chapels with a history or a story to tell. Most have an open window to the left of the main door through which the faithful can see the tabernacle and light their candles. So even if the church is locked, it is open.
Others have signs outside telling would-be criminals that they can forget any ideas of taking refuge in the sanctity of the chapel. This was such a common occurrence in Malta back in the day that many chapels decided to revoke the idea of the church as a refuge and cancel any offers of immunity. I suppose it was one way of separating the righteous.
The earlier churches and chapels that I saw are very simple, very basic, and still retain what I can only describe as that sense of oneness. Places you can go to commune with your god without the distractions of fine art and fancy decor. The bigger RC churches are more ornate and time spent inside is more like spending time in an art gallery. Their beauty is not in doubt; I just question their raison d’etre.
Way back when, I spent some time in Rome and visited the Vatican. I was horrified at the wealth and opulence and began to question an institution that could amass such fortunes will those in their midst went hungry. Speaking to an aunt of mine in Manchester sometime later, she told me of the many magnificent churches built from the pennies of the working-class Irish who lived in the city; families who would just as soon see themselves go hungry that to deny the church its tithe. You have to wonder…