Relics and Reliquaries

The Spanish hermit Fra Juan Beneguas de Cordova, who settled for some time in Malta, played a crucial role in promoting the grotto of St Paul as an important place of pilgrimage in the seventeenth century. His personal friendship with Pope Paul V and Grand Master Aloph the Wignacourt not only made St Paul’s Grotto well known internationally but also supplied the site with relics and reliquaries, which can still be seen in the Wignacourt Museum complex. 

Some of the most noteworthy relics found in this collection include eight reliquary busts, one of which is still on display on the first floor in the museum. This is the relic of St Matthew the Evangelist, which belongs to an early 17th Century Neapolitan workshop and is made of gilt and polychromed wood. The reliquary of St Matthew is immediately recognisable as it has an inscribed cartouche with the saint’s name on it. The bust also corresponds to the typical iconography of the saint, as an angel is represented in three-quarters height and holds up an open book. Even though this reliquary does show signs of later interpolations especially in the head and hands of the saint, it nonetheless is of great importance chiefly because of the relic it hosts. 

Some of the remaining reliquary busts can now be seen in the church of St Publius, which is found on top of St Paul’s Grotto. These surviving examples clearly show two stylistic groups. Most are in the early Baroque style as seen in the dynamic poses and gestures of the busts. On the other hand, a couple of these reliquaries show signs of the late Gothic idiom as the busts have taller proportions and a sophisticated elegance. Even though not all the relics seem to have belonged to the saint being represented in the reliquary bust, these are still valuable pieces in the Wignacourt collection as they show the religious fervour of the Counter-Reformation period.