Tag Archives: Christianity

St Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum, Rabat

St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.

There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:

Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.

Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.

These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:

Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.

I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:

Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.

The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.

But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.

Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.

cof

There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.

Rabat - St Agatha's

They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

A graffitied cherub

Rabat -- St Agatha's

There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…

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St Paul’s Grotto — WWII Shelters — Catacombs, Rabat

St Paul is my least favourite apostle. Not exactly an apostle, I know, but something like that. Persecuting Christians one minute, persecuting those who aren’t Christian enough the next, and it always seemed to me he quite hated women, made we want to throw my bible during Sunday School despite some lovely passages about love in those letters he wrote the Corinthians. Still, interesting to think of him here, in Malta, where we are too! Our first two nights in Mdina/Rabat, known as Melite to the Romans. This is from Acts 28: 1-10.

1. And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.

Pretty exciting times. Legend placed St Paul in this grotto/ cave/ prison preaching the gospel. If true (and it makes some geographic sense and the place name is right), he would have arrived here in 60 AD, shipwrecked while traveling from Crete to Rome for trial in front of Julius Ceasar.

St Paul’s Grotto

You follow down steps:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

To find the requisite marbled bit:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

And a quite lovely fresco

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The grotto itself is rather more humble, rather more grim.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

There was a huge fight over the legacy of St Paul between the Knights of St John and the Church. In 1607, Spanish hermit Juan Benegas de Cordova was given permission by Pope Paul V to look after the grotto. A small sheet of typewritten paper in the Wignacourt Museum above relates that it seems only then did the Knights realise the potential of the spot. Benegas ‘ceded’ the Grotto to them on 24th April 1617. Above it, Alof de Wignacourt built the Collegio that now forms the museum for the College of Chaplains, their mission to promote the cult of St Paul as well as to protect the Grotto. The church realised it had missed a trick, and immediately built their own — bigger, more eye-catching — church of St Paul immediately next door, financed by Cosmana Navarra (who has a street named after her, also a very nice restaurant now inhabiting her townhouse though we ourselves went to the Grotto Tavern, where I had ravioli in a kind of broth that started out on first taste as disappointingly bland until a crazy crescendo of flavour was reached at some point thereafter transforming my ideas of the heights pasta can attain). The grotto remained contested until the Knights lost everything (damn Napoleon) and now is with the Church. But this painting by the Knight’s own painter Antoine Favray (1706-1787), shows St John the Baptist and St Paul together, which only makes sense in the light of this story…hence, I suppose, the typewritten sheet beneath him.

Rabat -- Wignacourt Museum

Here also are perhaps my favourite catacombs — we have visited many. It also has a brilliant series of WWII shelters.

Down into the WWII Shelters

At the war’s outbreak (says the display), 8,000 workers began to dig shelters with pick axes. 841 shelters were dug to serve the population.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Some families asked for permission to dig individual shelters as seen in these caves, about 50 such rooms — all are a standard size and shape, but some have been painted and tiled. I loved these touches to create a kind of home here.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The view from inside

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Beyond the shelters are the catacombs, and they were my favourites because you can just wander around. There were very few others here, and to have this place to ourselves — so very cool.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Here we found first mention of the Agape Table, which we would find everywhere, yet this is a name fairly sneered at by Anthony Bonanno in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman. He might also have sneered at this drawing, of a family communing over a meal in the catacombs, a reconstruction of how it is believed they are used.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

But they are quite incredible

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

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Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]

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