Samuel Bugeja 1920-2004

The Silent Artist

Samuel Bugeja - The Restorer

An Exact Write Up By The Late Samuel Bugeja, The Artist / Restorer Who Uncovered The National Icon

The Seventies - Uncovering Of The National Shrine At Mellieha Sanctuary

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The Discovery in 1972 of the oldest mural painting representing the Blessed Virgin and Child at the Mellieha Sanctuary constitutes a historic event in the field of art in Malta. Tradition has it that this painting had been brutally damaged / defaced by the Barbarians during one of their frequent raids of the Island in the 15th Century. They committed this deplorable act as a reprisal after suffering a defeat at the hands of the Maltese. The Ecclesiastical Authorities of that time, due to the precarious state of the painting, decided that on the existing painting another completely new Icon should be painted. This was done with the result that nobody since the 15th Century up to 1972 had ever seen the authentic and original Madonna and Child of Mellieha.

The technique used for the superimposed painting was that of fresco. The surface colour of this second painting did not resist the humidity of the cave environment and started to flake off. A century ago the famous Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali was commissioned to make a faithful copy of it before should disappear completely. This copy by Cali is still extant and may be seen in the sacristy of the Mellieha Sanctuary.

By 1970 not even the smallest area of colour could be seen, save for the white intonaco (plaster preparation layer). During that same year while restoring Mellieha Sanctuary ceiling painting, I had the opportunity to closely inspect the intonaco from extremely close quarters. After many hours of close inspection, I discussed with Monsignor Schembri, the then Mellieha Parish Priest (now passed away). Convinced that there was more to inspect, I recommended to Mgr Schembri the possibility to slowly removing some of the intonaco to better explore what could possibly be underneath (which eventually uncovered what was providentially left of the original Madonna of Mellieha Sanctuary).

Mellieha National Icon

The Parish Priest, after some very understandable hesitations and concerns, gave me his full backing. Mgr Schembri later proceeded to obtain the authorisation and permission from the late Archbishop Michael Gonzi before I could start this extremely arduous work. The work required not only enormous painstaking patience and diligence but also high physical exertion since I had to squirm in in and stay very long hours in uncomfortable positions.

In 1972, when I freed the Icon from the intonaco that had buried it for more than four hundred years, it was becoming very clear that the lower part was completely missing. However, providentially, the upper part which constitutes the vital part of the Icon, namely the faces of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, was found to be in a relatively good state of conservation. It was also noted that the original Icon was directly painted on the stone / rock and no fresco technique was adopted. The colours are very strong and very well adhered to the stone. In fact, the colours resisted the humidity of the cave environment for several centuries. Due to extreme care and patience, it also resisted the technical procedure I adopted to remove the intonaco under which it lay buried.

Consciously I did not try to match the missing parts around the faces of Our Lady and Child with any sort of colour. The strength of the original colour needed to remain the essence of this discovery. However, since the large zone of the lower part was found completely destroyed, I reckoned it fit to cover it with a certain red violet colour which is the colour mostly adopted on such painting. In fact the small areas of the original colour of the shoulders of the figures are violet in red. The technique of vertical hatchings used to fill in the vast missing area is such as to enable the scholars to clearly distinguish it from the original.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Pope Saint John Paul II spent time in deep prayer before the Madonna And Child National Icon during his visit to Malta on 26th May 1990.

After almost 50 years since the discovery of the original icon by Samuel Bugeja, in order to continue to preserve this historic work of art further restoration was undertaken in 2016 by Valentina Lupo. The following is the current icon following the latest intervention.

The National Icon Following the 2016 Intervention