St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat, is the heart of Malta’s Christian heritage. It lies below St Paul’s Parish Church and the neighbouring Chapel of St. Publius. According to tradition, this grotto is the place where St Paul resided after he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta on his way from Crete to Rome to face trial, in 60 A.D. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how St Paul spent three months on the island preaching Christianity and curing the sick, amongst whom was Publius’ father. St Publius, who at the time was the prefect of Malta, was made Malta’s first bishop and the grotto became one of the earliest places of Christian worship on the island.
The most prominent features of the grotto are the marble statue of St Paul and the silver galley hanging from the ceiling, given by the Knights of St John.
The execution of the statue of St Paul was initiated by the renowned Maltese sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà (1636-1667). During his brief career, Cafà became the most imortant Baroque sculptor in Rome in the generation subsequent to Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The statue of St Paul was completed by Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686), an Italian sculptor who had a flourishing workshop in Rome, in which Cafà had trained in the early years of his career.
Another interesting feature of the grotto is the set of stairs that lead to the Wignacourt College through an underground passage.
The Wignacourt College was erected on the site of St Paul’s Grotto by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt for the chaplains of the Order of St. John to preside at St Paul’s Grotto in 1617. Until 1610, the Grotto was under the jurisdiction of the Cathedral of Mdina but was then officially isolated from the parish administartion and eventually entrusted to the Knights of St John.
The Grotto’s significance is further heightened by the plaque in memorandum of the visit of Pope John Paul II.
In May 1990, Pope John Paul II visited and prayed within the grotto. On April 2010, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, also visited and prayed within the grotto.
Author: Amy Sciberras