The parish church of St Helen in Birkirkara was built during the first half of the eighteenth century and is one of the finest parish churches in Malta.1
Designed on a Latin cross plan, the sides of the Church end up with four deep apses that accommodates a high perspective of sublime architectural space. On the top of the High Altar apse stands a fine gold guilt carved chubby angel adorned with Baroccheto floral motifs. This high decoration brings harmony to the church in general and accentuates a spatial movement especially while walking along the main nave. As stated by Mahoney, “all the main characteristics of Maltese Baroque churches are to be found in the church of St Helen.”2
The Basilica has an imposing façade which was modeled after Gafà’s Mdina Cathedral, although the proportions are of more refined and not as squat.3 The three-façade is divided into four groupings of Composite and Corinthian pilasters while the two plain entablatures run uninterruptedly along the main façade counter balance the vertical members of the façade. The three portals on ground level are surmounted by segmental and triangular pediments. Substantial space in the second storey was given by the architect to lay the clocks while a huge window is adorned with an intricately carved sculpture to balance the whole composition. The lavishly and overwhelming façade is crowned by two flamboyant belfries each of which consist of a main thick block of stones topped with pinnacles and artificial flames. The natural execution of the works in St Helen’s belfries gives the sensation to the hands of a chef who interplays decoratively with icing sugar outstandingly. Indeed the upper part establishes the equilibrium of the whole settecento masterpiece. Everything appears in movement while the Appostolato on the upper part makes the viewer to stop and watch a complete whole drama. Worthy of noting are the decoration above the clocks and the frontispiece which symbolize a dove so as to represent the Holy Spirit. Seeing at a closer distance the latter radiates some ethereal and elusive quality and reminds very much to the lines of Bernini’s focal point in his famous St Peter’s Cathedra.
Further 19th century decorations are assumed to have been designed by the Nazarene artist Giuseppe Hyzler. However, although of a different style, Hyzler’s work thought quite fit with the original designs. In the past years the Chief Church Warden Mr Emmanule Sammut undertook the responsibility to complete a full restoration of the façade. Such meticulous work was supervised by Prof Dennis De Lucca on the behalf of the International Institute of Baroque Studies.
Author/s: Mario Guaci & Melanie Farrugia