Years ago I had a discussion with a very learned Jesuit who told me that modern churches needed modern and contemporary art, and that any attempt to recreate the glories of the past was doomed to be pastiche, and nothing was worse than pastiche. My answer to him was that churches surely needed good art, and the modern and contemporary was not always good, though it sometimes could be. Funnily enough this conversation took place in Campion Hall, which has a beautiful chapel, the creation of Edwin Lutyens, which is decorated by several great artists such as Frank Brangwyn and the little known but brilliant Charles Mahoney. The trouble is, where are the Frank Brangwyns of today?
But it can be done. Just recently it has been done in Paola, in Malta, where the largest church on the island has recently unveiled a new apse fresco, the work of the young artist Manuel Farrugia. He is, as the pictures will show, something of a modern Carravagist.
The fresco depicts Christ the King, to which the church is dedicated, along with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, Our Lady Immaculate, an angel offering incense and an allegorical figure representing Malta herself, holding the emblem of the Eucharistic Congress, which was held in 1913, the year the Church was built, as a celebration of that event.
The work was the idea of the parish priest Fr Mark André Camilleri, and was carried out in consultation with the diocesan authorities who had some comments on the composition and suggested some changes. The bozzetto was finalised only in May, and the artist worked day and night on the composition for several weeks. The apse is sixty feet in circumference, and the whole painted surface is some 90 square metres.
Who paid? The whole was paid for by a single anonymous donor, thought the cost of the scaffolding was met by collections from the parish.
The Archbishop of Malta was very pleased with the result. Mgr Scicluna had been a deacon in the Paola church, which, back then (I remember it well) rather resembled a bus garage, being completely bare of decoration. The architect was the late Guzé Damato, a wonderful man who dedicated his life to church building, and who offered all his services free of charge and never took expenses. A saint if ever there was one!
Damato’s churches are very fine compositions, though often some of them have been filled with inferior artwork. In Paola, in my humble opinion, this is definitely not the case. But look at the pictures, and judge for yourself.