The Maltese are a busy bunch and almost each and every one of the 450,000+ islanders spends a lot of time driving along narrow roads which sprawl over every inch of the vastly urban landscape that covers the rock.
It’s a mysterious, impenetrable maze built out of new concrete and old limestone, and it holds many secrets.
Birkirkara is not one such secret. It’s a super massive town which the neurons in my brain connect to that local cathedral of sporting goods Eurosport, simply because when I do happen to be in Birkirkara it’s because I need to buy a new pair of football boots. But the last time I was there, I discovered something quite different from the latest Nike Mercurials: a quaint old chapel known as Is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Herba.
While I advise the gentle reader not to trust my Maltese-English translation skills, ‘Herba’ means something similar to ‘destruction’. No one knows why the sanctuary is called this, though there are a number of legends which I shall not elaborate on because bizarre legends are a dime a dozen around these parts.
Concealed in a dead-end alley close to the far larger St Helen’s Basilica (Santa Liena), the sanctuary is easy to miss. In 1575, it was already known as a place of worship though it wasn’t expressly referred to as Tal-Herba until later.
The sanctuary, seemingly unimpressive from the outside, contains a number of treasures and interesting features, not least among them being this beautiful sculpture (above) done in the rococo style. I couldn’t find any information about who the sculptor was, but it is undoubtedly a work of art of the highest quality.
Pride of place has been given to the above ‘thing’. It looks like one of those yellowing fake flower bouquets you’re likely to find in the storage room of the Manoel Theatre, but what it actually is (according to the friendly sacristan who’s more than happy to show people around) is a gift from Grand Master de La Valette. Churches and chapels all over the islands make boastful claims of this sort. It’s the old ‘my piece of the true cross is bigger than your piece of the true cross’ fixation. Whether it is true or not, objects such as these add character to such places of worship.
Elsewhere in the church, the sacristan took me into a rather splendid room with walls that were absolutely covered by ex voto paintings, the majority of which had a maritime theme.
Ex voto paintings are paintings which are painted following a prayer as the fulfillment of a vow. Viewing them made me feel connected to the community of worshipers who found solace and comfort inside this sanctuary. They represent their fears brought to life, but each of the hundreds of paintings tells the story of a loved one who came home or was saved, and the chamber is therefore a testament to the resounding sense of hope that the devotees found in their faith.
The best feature of this church, however, was the sacristan. A pleasant, generous man who is willing to share his profound love of the church with anyone who shows an interest.