Dating frescos by fashion

Forget carbon dating – let’s use fashion instead.Yes, things are done differently in Malta.

Although just a fraction of the original church remains, that piece of the Santa Marija Ta’  Bir Miftuħ chapel that is still standing, 600 years after it was built, is a beautiful example of Medieval architecture. If you stand at the back of the church to the right, and look straight ahead, the arches overhead appear to fan outwards to the left. And yet, if you go to the front of the church and look back, it’s the opposite. Most peculiar

At one time, this was the second-biggest church in Malta, built in the shape of a cross in the fifteenth century. It suffered at the hands of the Turks and again  during the sieges of 1565 and 1942 (if you have the time, these two documentary videos give interesting accounts of both sieges).  During the restoration work in 1973, builders discovered a sixteenth-century fresco on the back wall. Although just parts remain, it is clearly a depiction of the Last Judgement.

Interestingly, though, it was dated   because of the type of dress worn. Not exactly the most technologically correct perhaps, but a good guide, nonetheless. In this picture, the woman’s dress is in a style fashionable in the early sixteenth century. The lily she’s holding in her hand might also tell us that she is one of the Bonici family, whose emblem is a lily. Makes you wonder how twenty-first century photos and art will be dated 600 years from now.


As to what Bir Miftuħ means, it seems that opinion is divided between ‘open well’ and ‘sweet-smelling’ well. Personally, the well I saw, partially covered by moss and growth, smelled sweet – so perhaps ‘open, sweet-smelling’ might be a good compromise.

1 reply
  1. Steven Micallef
    Steven Micallef says:

    This church was already a parish in 1436, where it was mentioned in a report by Bishop Senatore de Mello and served as such until 1676 when the Parish Church of Gudja was built.
    One should mention that the church was reduced to it’s present size in 1512.
    In 1768, the chapel was repaired by the Parish Priest Fr. Guzepp Saliba from Luqa.
    During the night of 24th January, 1663, unknown persons broke into the church, ransacked the place, forced the door of the tabernacle and made away with a silver pyx containing consecrated hosts. The unprecedented sacrilege caused general consternation, and on the 28th of the same month, the Grandmaster, Raphael Cotoner, and the Bishop Balaguer issued a joint condemnation of the unknown thieves, who were excommunicated. Then, in the following February, the empty pyx was found in the confessional of the church of St. James in Valletta.
    In 1830 Baroness “Bettina” Muscat Cassia D` Aurel repaired the chapel.
    The Chapel suffered from War damage on 9th April, 1942.
    It became a Trust of “Din l-Art Helwa” in 1968.
    The chapel is built in the late medieval style.


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