Unique set of Apostles at Mdina Cathedral taken twice as booty by the French
They are exhibited at the Imdina Cathedral twice a year: between Christmas and the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and again in Imnarja. These are a set of 15 statues known as The Apostolate, and which in the opinion of art experts is a unique set for Malta and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sets of Apostles in the world. The story of this set of statues is a turbulent one. They were taken by the French on two occasions, and the Church in Malta had to pay more than 50,000 skudi to redeem them and save them from destruction.
The Imdina Cathedral is presently decked out in all its glory for the feast of the conversion of St Paul. Pontifical High Mass was celebrated on Sunday morning by Maltese bishops who were or still are in church service overseas.
Highlight of the church decorations is the set of 15 silver statues, unique to Maltese churches. Known as the Apostolate, besides the 12 Apostles the set included the Madonna, taking pride of place in the centre of the altar, and next to her the statues of St Paul as Patron Saint of Malta and titular saint of the Cathedral, and Saint John Baptist, patron of the Order of the Knights of St John.
The Apostolate had been commissioned by the Knights to Italian artist Antonio Arrighi, and was donated midway through the 18th century to be displayed on the altar of the Order’s Conventual Church. Unluckily, their presence at St John’s Co-Cathedral was a turbulent one. They were taken as booty in 1798 on orders from Napoleon, along with other objects in silver, gold and precious stones in the Co-Cathedral. The intention was for these objects to be melted down, and for the French to pay their soldiers from the accrued funds. The Imdina Cathedral Chapter intervened to save this set of statues, and a barter agreement was made.
“The French sent two Governors with an armed escort and took from the Cathedral six large coffers packed with gold, silver and precious stones in exchange to the value of 40,000 skudi, which is more than the value of the statues at the time”, Imdina Cathedral Museum Curator, Reverend Dr Edgar Vella, explained.
Saved from being melted down and destroyed, the statues were returned to the Co-Cathedral. A year later the French again took them, and another payment of 11,500 skudi had to be made to get them back. The lesson was learned, the hard way.
“Everything was done with the approval of the Bishop at the time, Bishop Labini, who on the second occasion ordered their immediate transfer from St John’s in Valletta to Imdina. These statues today form part of the National patrimony of one of the most important sets, possibly the most important one, and their quality and quantity places them high on the list of anything found in European churches”, Reverend Dr Vella explained.
The Curator of the Cathedral Museum explained that the statues are made on Baroque principles, inspired by the Apostolate of the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome, and the artist, when at measuring stage, took note of the fact that in Malta they would be exhibited between the candlesticks.