Malta’s 10 must-see historical masterpieces

An armchair adventure through Malta’s artistic legacy, admiring ten of the country’s most iconic masterpieces.

In 2016, Europeana 280, a cross-border campaign to get people interested in Europe’s artworks and their evolution across the centuries, asked the Maltese Ministry of Culture to select highlights of Maltese art on the island. The Ministry identified ten masterpieces.

Recently, I asked the Ministry for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government if the list would still be applicable today. The answer was that it would. The National Museum of Fine Arts, MUŻA, maintains seven of these masterpieces, while the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation maintains the other three. 

These are the ten Masterpieces that Malta selected and that, at the time, formed part of a collection of more than 300 awe-inspiring paintings, drawings, photographs, posters, illustrations, sculptures, and other objects which together tell a story of how Europe’s art heritage has developed down the centuries.

1. The Beheading of St John the Baptist

This painting, by the Milanese-born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known as  Caravaggio, depicts the beheading of St John the Baptist, and was purposely painted for the space where it still hangs to date. Regarded as the most famous artist in Malta, Caravaggio painted his works during his Maltese sojourn. 

Subject: Bible stories – the beheading of John the Baptist (painted  1608)

Type of item: oil paintings (visual works) Early Baroque

Medium: Oil on canvas – oil paint (paint), canvas (textile material)

Maintained by St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation

2. St Jerome

 This painting depicts St. Jerome in Jerusalem writing the vulgata (the Latin Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church, primarily translated by St Jerome). This painting is also the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It was the former property of a Knight of Malta, Fra Ippolito Malaspina. His coat-of-arms is included in the lower right corner of the painting.

Subject: Bible stories: St. Jerome translating the Old and the New Testament into Latin (the Vulgate) (painted  1607)

Type of item:oil paintings (visual works) Early Baroque

Medium: Oil on canvas – oil paint (paint), canvas (textile material)

Maintained by St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation

3. St George on Horseback

The painting is the work of the Calabrian Mattia Preti. It depicts the vision of St George on Horseback. It was the artist’s introductory piece to Malta and is recognised amongst the best Neapolitan Baroque works painted in Italy then. Preti is an artist most associated with adorning the baroque churches of Malta.

 

Subject: Saint George, horse (painted in 1658)

Type of item: religious art –  High Baroque

Medium: Oil on canvas – oil paint (paint), canvas (textile material)

Maintained by St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation

4. St John the Baptist wearing the Red Tabard of the Order of St John

The subject of the painting is believed to be a symbolic self-portrait of the Italian painter Mattia Preti, the baroque artist and knight of Malta.

Subject: John the Baptist; sheep (17th century).

Type of item: religious art – High Baroque

Medium: Oil on canvas; oil paint (paint); canvas (textile material) 

Maintained by MUŻA

5. Risen Christ embracing the Cross

There are several versions of this painting by Guido Reni, but this one is considered to be the prototype. It is a classical baroque interpretation of a marble statue by Michelangelo Buonarroti at the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.

Subject: Resurrection of Jesus (painted c. 1619)

Type of item: Religious art – Early Baroque 

Medium: Oil on canvas; oil paint (paint) 

Maintained by MUŻA

6. Judith and Holofernes

This painting by Valentin de Boulogne depicts the well-known Bible story of Judith beheading the Assyrian General Holophernes. This painting is recognised as amongst the artist’s finest works, possibly his masterpiece.

Subject: Bible stories – Holofernes beheaded by Judith with his sword; the maidservant may be watching (painted c. 1624).

Type of item: oil paintings (visual works). Early Baroque

Medium: oil paint (paint); canvas (textile material)

Maintained by MUŻA

7. Death of Dragut

This work is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Maltese artist Giuseppe Calì. He was inspired for this painting by Orientalism (the imitation or depiction of aspects of the Eastern world by writers, designers, and artists from the Western world), which was fashionable at the time. It represents an episode from the Great Siege of Malta (1565).

Subject: Military: Siege of Malta Turgut Reis (painted 1867).

Type of item: history paintings: Romantic (modern European styles)

Medium: Oil on canvas  oil paint (paint) canvas (textile material)

Maintained by MUŻA

 

8. The Charity of St Thomas of Villanova

This etching shows the proposed marble group by the Maltese Baroque artist/sculptor Melchiorre Gafà, also known as Caffà, Gaffar, or Gafar, for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. Gafà was born in Birgu in Malta and was given the name Marcello at his baptism in 1636. He moved to Rome in 1658. He was the brother of Lorenzo Gafà, one of the leading architects in Malta.

Subject: Thomas of Villanova Reis (painted 1663)

Type of item: religious art etchings (prints) – High Baroque

Medium: Etching on paper (Terracotta)

Maintained by MUŻA

9. Front Elevation for a Monument to the Unknown Soldier

This watercolour and gouache work of art is one of the first responses to the concept of a monument to the Unknown Soldier by Antonio Sciortino, the Maltese artist who was considered Malta’s foremost sculptor of the twentieth century. The structure had to be built in London.

 

Subject: Architecture: monument, statue; architecture (discipline). Done in 1917.

Type of item: Art Deco

Medium: Gouache on paper; Aquarell gouaches (paintings)

Maintained by MUŻA

10. Abstract painting

This abstract painting was made by Victor Pasmore before his passing in 1998. The artist lived in Malta from 1966 until his death. He is described by the British curator and art critic Kenneth Clarke as “one of the two or three most talented British painters of this century”.

 

Type of item: Abstract (modern European style),  Contemporary (style of art). Painting from 1998.

Medium: Spray can paint, oil on canvas oil paint (paint); canvas (textile material)

Maintained by MUŻA

Check out Europana’s ‘Masterpieces from Malta’ here.

Main photo: BeSeeingYou

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