The Saints and the Holy in Gozo

  • 22.March 2013
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Visiting Gozo in the run-up to Easter provides an excellent opportunity to hone in on the way the Gozitan people have always looked with respect at all that is saintly and holy.  Predominatly Roman Catholic, the island’s history is tinged with remarkable tales linked to its religious leanings and to specific sites.

The first key landmark to be appreciated on arriving at the port of Mgarr is the majestic looking sanctuary on top of the hill overlooking the bay and dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto. Each church or chapel on the island is dedicated to one saint or another and each has a story or legend associated to its origins. In two specific instances, two localities have been baptised with a holy name, as in the case of San Blas or San Lawrenz. At times people referring to the village of Gharb, mistakenly refer to it as Ta’ Pinu which name actually refers to the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary in this village, a highly important pilgrimage landmark on this small island.

But even before approaching any church or chapel parvis, one starts to have a saintly visual experience in the form of street niches, wayside statuettes and holy icons. Each was inserted in the street furnishing for a given and valid reason – perhaps to fulfil a vow that was granted by a revered saint and had to be settled by sharing one’s reverence publicly; or after a serious road accident which left victims that remained perennially remembered by means of commemorative plaques, floral décor and candlelight. Miraculous survivals are usually remembered in other ways, namely by visiting Ta’ Pinu.

Devotion spills out from the village and town homes in the form of door name plaques dedicated to a saint, a holy personage, a miraculous location and even a pope or two. Street names on the other hand also tend to be occasionally linked to the other-worldly …. and then one reaches the village and town squares where churches reign unencumbered.

Every self-respecting parvis tends to home a few statues or religious symbols as do church or chapel facades with their cupolas, spires, regal doorways and endless colonnades, no matter what the style. Indoors, out of the sun and the rain, the church interior becomes especially and increasingly suggestive as the Holy Week approaches. At Easter time, churches tend to be bedecked with the huge life-sized statues representing the various passages from the passion of the Christ. Each major parish generally has its own jealously protected collection of specially commissioned artistically created statues. Each of these is decorated with hundreds of flowers, ready to emerge outdoors for the traditional street pageant/procession on the afternoon and evening of Good Friday.

Once that is over, the statues are hurriedly stacked away to make space for the statue that exits the church on Sunday morning. Easter Sunday will see the Risen Christ statue taking to the streets for the early morning parade and the blessing of the childrens’ traditional sweet – the Figolla.  At times, the statue will be also raced down streets and back into church amidst the pealing of church bells and fireworks. Whoever said life in Gozo was staid and quiet had never been at Easter…..

This article was written by Marika Azzopardi, a freelance writer and journalist. A frequent contributor to national English language papers and magazines, she writes about a bevy of topics including art, people and life in general. She is also the author of children’s books and short stories, delving into adult fiction from time to time.