Nestled in a quiet corner of St Paul’s Shipwreck church, in Valletta, is a small and unassuming entryway to one of its various oratories and chapels. A small dome at its mouth gives way to a door on the left-hand side. Through that opening is an oratory dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, which houses unique works of art as well as a rich and intriguing history.
The oratory is one of several looked after by the Confraternity of Charity, a charitable foundation with a long history intertwined with the capital. Much like their titular chapel, the confraternity has led a quiet but impactful existence since its inception. Founded in 1610, it initially came together as a group of wealthy residents of the capital who wished to set up funds and initiatives that benefited the well-being of the poor.
As the Knights of St John brought their abundant riches to their new fortified city, poverty still ran rampant among the lower classes. The confraternity, aware and troubled by the prevalence of social inequality, made it its mission to provide assistance to the poor and anyone in need who came knocking on their door.
In its prime, the confraternity provided dowries for needy girls and reformed prostitutes, to allow them to marry or join convents and escape the destitution that was rife in Valletta at the time.
The confraternity upheld dearly the corporeal as well as the spiritual works of mercy, which today still influence the charitable causes it provides aid to. The oratory of Our Lady of Charity houses six works by the painter Giuseppe d’Arena – who was one of the most active artists in Malta at the time – depicting the corporal acts of charity in notable acts of biblical figures.
The widow of Sarepta gives bread to the prophet Elijah who envisions feeding the poor; the prodigal son returning to his father to be draped in his cloak tells us to clothe the naked; a merciful conqueror, Judas Maccabeus is depicted burying the dead; Abraham the father invites the three angels to sit at his table, reminding its audience of the virtue of being charitable without inhibition.
An additional two paintings depict Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams from a prison cell, as well as King David of Israel on his deathbed – a call to visit the sick and the imprisoned. The works draw attention to both Giuseppe d’Arena’s skill and talent as a contemporary artist as well as representing the core values of charity in a way that has remained communicable throughout the centuries.
The chapel’s altar piece is a stunning picture by Attilio Palombi – who also worked on the dome of the collegiate church – depicting Our Lady of Charity seated with the Infant Christ on her lap, a tender setting as they bless the poor and the indigent in their midst.
This is accompanied by two works of Francesco Zahra framed in marble, depicting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and Christ on the way to Calvary. The theme is visibly agony, specifically that of Christ pre-empting his great suffering.
Here, as well, is the message that small acts of charity may serve to alleviate even some suffering – in the angel sent to comfort Jesus in the absence of his friends, and in the crawling figure of Saint Veronica, her head noticeably unveiled as she offers Christ a small relief from his great strife.
With kind permission of the author Jessica Arena