Written by C. Rolé
The smell of festivity is in the air, "a day to remember, a day of joy and cheerful awaiting on the Church parvis, accompanied by the harmonious sound of fireworks". This description is typically associated with the Maltese village feasts or 'festi', which are unique and cannot be found anywhere but on our small island, and are so much cherished by the Maltese villagers, who every year work hard in order to worship the saints. Our village is proud to host two of the most important and sought village feasts in our country, which are the feast of St. Catherine V. M., celebrated on the first Sunday of September, and the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, celebrated in July. The same festive environment was also shown on another day not associated with these 2 feasts, specifically on the 28th of May of 1958.
A new 'bradella' for the statue of Saint Catherine
The year 1958 will be remembered for ever as the year when the new bradella (which means platform) arrived in our village. "A day of great joy, everyone excited and cheerfully awaiting on the parvis the arrival of the new bradella. People are literally popping out from every corner of the village from Nigret to Ħal-Far!" (Xuereb, 2010). This is the description of a 14 year old boy who was present at this occasion. The people of Żurrieq always wished to have the opportunity to buy a new bradella for the titular statue but it was not until the 1950's that this wish could come true due to the economical disaster left by the second world war (Sagona, 2003). Also, prior to the 50's, the parish had to deal with other problems, particularly related to the damages made to the Church building during an air raid on the 23rd of July 1942. It was the year 1950, when rumours where heard all over the village that finally this wish could come true (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). At the same time, the nearby parish of Gudja was also working hard in order to construct a new bradella for the statue of Our Lady of the Lillies (Sagona, 2003).
Till 1958, the titular statue of Saint Catherine used to be placed on the bradella of Our Lady of Sorrows (till 1893) and then on the one of Saint Joseph (Xuereb, 2010). It was the parish priest Rev. Salvatore Gauci who worked hard in order to start the plans for the construction of a new bradella for the titular saint. In 1950, Rev. Gauci commissioned the artist Emanuel Buhagiar to design a detailed sketch of a new bradella (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). This sketch was completed the following year and consisted of a drawing measuring 63cm by 43.5cm made of ink and grey-brown wash and was signed by Buhagiar on the 4th of May 1951. The sketch also includes a detailed plan of construction. Sagona (2003) describes this sketch as a marvellous piece of art that demonstrates clearly the organized detailed composition of the sketch together with marvelous ornamental depiction. This sketch also illustrates the talents of Buhagiar with respect to precision and attention to detail. Mangion (1989) reports that many experts in the field considered this sketch as being one of Buhagiar's best piece of art. Many Maltese artists refused to perform the construction of this bradella due to its complexity.
From dream to reality
Unfortunately, due to lack of finances, the construction of this bradella could not start as soon as the sketch was ready (Sagona, 2003). It was 1956, when Rev. Gauci encouraged the benefactors Alfons Gauci and his wife Giuseppina (née Saydon) to give a helping hand in the financing of this project. The couple generously offered to pay the whole project from their own finances (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). This agreement was noted in the supplica, which was presented to the Giunta Diocesana per la Tutela della Antichità Ecclesiastiche at the Archdiocese of Malta in June 1956. In this document, a written permission to buy this new bradella can be found (Kurja ta' Malta, 1956). As soon as permits were issued, the construction of this bradella could start. Due to Buhagiar's poor health the work could not be executed by himself and therefore after refusal by many Maltese artists(Mangion & Zerafa, 1989), the construction work was commissioned to the Italian company Ferdinando Perathoner e Figli in Ortisei, Bolzano (Buhagiar & Zarb 1979). In order to make sure that the construction is made well, the director of the Italian company visited our Island on the 8th of December 1957. During his stay, he made a detailed artistic analysis of the titular statue of St Catherine and also attended a meeting with Emanuel Buhagiar (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989).
The new bradella
The new bradella was constructed out of walnut (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989) and measures 150cm by 236cm by 236cm (Sagona, 2003). Each façade consists of 3 sections, the centre part of each façade depicts a seated female statue representing one of the four cardinal virtues. Each statue is also characterized by its respective symbol of virtue which is located in each statue's hand. The other two sections of each façade (located on each side of the virtue statues) show a small sculpture depicting the first female martyr and virgin saints of the Roman Catholic Church. These saints are St. Christine, St. Agnes, St. Filomena, St. Agatha, St. Lucy, St. Cecilia, St. Dorothy and St. Margaret. All the above mentioned statues together with 4 putti situated in the centre of each façade, were made out of bronze. According to the original design, the rest of the sculpturing present in façades of the bradella had to be made out of bronze, but due to limitation, this was not possible, and were worked out of wood (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989)
The arrival of the new bradella at our Parish
At last the waiting was over and the people of Zurrieq could finally see and touch the new bradella. The new baradella arrived at the Grand Habour on the 28th of May, 1958. Rev. Gauci, together with Guzeppi Xuereb, Rokku Grixti and Censu Schembri went aboard the ship to make sure that the entire work of art arrived safely to our Islands. Great festivities awaited the arrival of the new bradella at our village. Upon its arrival a number of firework show took place and the boxed containing the new bradella were placed inside the Oratory. A number of people, together with Emanuel Buhagiar gathered in the church to give a helping hand in the assembling of the bradella (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). When the bradella was completely assembled, a little disappointment appeared on the face of Buhagiar. The reason behind this was the fact that the new bradella was not faithfully constructed according to the original design and some details were omitted from the work of art (Sagona, 2003).
It was also noted that the upper part of the bradella, which was meant to be detached from the bradella and accompany the statue during the processions, was too bulky (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). In fact, when the bradella was inaugurated in 1958, 16 people were needed to carry out the statue during the feast procession. As a result, it was decided that the bradella needed some modifications (Xuereb, 2010).
Modification carried out in the bradella
The Commander Antonio Aguis (1899 - 1987) wrote a formal letter to Perathoner in order to inform them about the modification that were going to be carried out on the new bradella. In turn, Perathoner sent a number of instructions on how this work should be conducted (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). These instructions were even accompanied by a box of nails in order to match those originally used in the construction of this bradella. All works related to the modification of the bradella were carried out by Guzeppi Xuereb together with Guzeppi Farrugia in a store owned by the family known as Tal-Qamħa, located in St. Michael Street, Żurrieq. This work consisted in the dismantling of the bradella in a number of small pieces in line with the instructions sent by Perathoner. The modifications carried out by Xuereb resulted in a small part of the bradella being taken out together with the statue during processions, leading to a substantial reduction in weight. During the reassemble of the bradella, Xuereb and Farrugia got a great fright when they noted that one of the parts went missing. They immediately worked a new one so that no one could note the missing part. Some time later, during the cleaning up of the store, this piece was found and was kept with great care by Xuereb. After this intervention, the bradella needed to be re-varnished. This task was given to two workers from Birgu, who were great friends of Manuel Mallia (Xuereb, 2010).
Restoration of the bradella
In the early 1980s, the Parish Priest Rev. Vella commissioned the restoration of this bradella to Carmel Xuereb, son of Guzeppi Xuereb. This work consisted of the bradella being dismantled, re-varnished and its lower part being reworked from stretch as this got rotten with time (Xuereb, 2010). Currently, the bradella is stored in a glass box, purposely made in the Parish Church sacristy and is used each year during the titular feast of Saint Catherine
Buhagiar, M. & Zarb, S.M. (1979). St. Catherine of Alexandria: her churches, paintings and statues in the Maltese Islands. Valletta (Malta): Progress Press Ltd.
Informazzjoni minn Xuereb Carmelo.
Kurja ta' Malta (1956) A.M. Suppliche Vol. 333 pg. 534
Mangion, A. & Zerafa, K, (1989). Santa Katerina: il-festa u s-soċjetà mużikali tagħha fiż-Żurrieq. Valletta (Malta): Peresso Printing Press.
Sagona, M. (1999). The designs of Abram Gatt, Francesco Saverio Sciortino, Emanuele Buhagiar and Guiseppe Galea for the churches of Gozo. Unpublished B.A. (Hons.). Art dissertation, Faculty of Arts, University of Malta.
Sagona M. (2003). Emanuele Buhagiar (1876 - 1962): his contribution to the ecclesiastical decorative arts of the Maltese Islands. Unpublished M.A. History of Arts dissertation, Faculty of Arts, University of Malta.
Xuereb, C. (2007). The creation of a church museum at Zurrieq: a tourism potential for the South. Unpublished B.A. (Hons.). Tourism Studies dissertation, Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy, University of Malta.