Beyond the transept to the left of the church is the heart of Saint Helen’s Basilica in Birkirkara – the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Curiously, although the Chapel is total Baroque in its design, here the viewer finds a timeless quality of decoration. The reredos is predominantly decorated with two cartouches on each side. The dominant motif of the whole reredos is the Host laid on a shield. This is embraced by two beautifully flying putti. Even more the refined baroque ornamentation of the apse interplays well with the light blue color and gold guild stars. The central part of the reredos encases a frame which presumably contains the most beautiful painting of the Basilica - The Establishment of the Institution of the Eucharist.1 In this work Francesco Zahra shows his total maturity in the composition and the color scheme where tones of blue and burnt umber predominate among other pigments of his rich palette. The focal point of the painting, where all the lines of sight are focused, is the Eucharist and Christ. But even more there seems a conversation with Saint Peter. Seated on either sides of the table are the rest of the apostles caught in a moment of agitation. Above the Eucharist, the Eternal Father appears in the act of blessing the whole scene.
The Baroque marble altar and the intarsio steps are the works of Gregorio and Giovanni Durante from Senglea. 2 Both works in marble must have been designed again by F. Zahra where the Collegiate Chapter appointed him as their chief decorator for high commissions. Between the candlesticks and the artificial flowers one finds a solid silver Tabernacle. The design of Prof Briffa is very original. At the very top Briffa put the holy lamb, a symbol to signify purity and sacrifice. The lamb seems sitting on a throne consisting of a holy bible held by two beautiful angles that are flanked on the frontal. The main door perhaps a copy of Guido Reni’s Risurrezione del Signore Con La Croce is adorned with fine low relief of fruiting vines and wheat. All the silver materials of the Tabernacle were given as freewill offerings by people particularly Can Dec Joseph Micallef who undertook the initiative. The gold and silver antependium reflects the influence of the Busuttil brothers in the Neoclassical and early Victorian period. This work was completed in the year 1859.3 Hanging in front of the altar is a huge oil silver lamp while underneath stands a chancel which separates the Holy area. The work in marble and openwork bronze gates is yet another revival of original decoration. The walls of the chapel are richly covered with very fine damask a pura seta imported from Genoa4 while large panels of marble cover practically all the walls of the chapel. Thought to be really a place of worship, the chapel is adorned with two silver braccio a muro, embroidered processional canopy, a silver monstrance and Venetian murano chandeliers. Up the small dome the viewer can see the paintings by G Briffa. The theme Congresso Eurcahrisitico 1913 was selected principally to remember one of the greatest manifestations of the Roman Catholic Church in Malta.
Authors: Mario Gauci and Melanie Farrugia