Good Friday and Easter in Birgu


The Good Friday procession in Birgu used to take part before 1749/50; this procession was not complete with the statues as we know it today.  Since 1975 this procession in Birgu has taken a form of a pageant with the traditional unique statues including personages dressed in robes of biblical characters of both Testaments.  Very recently in 1999 even women took part on show with these beautiful robes in the procession.  The earlier statues that were brought from Spain were the responsibility of Maltese seafarers after seeing Good Friday processions in Barcellona Spain with statues dressed in real attire in a Spanish style.  They were so impressed with the statues that they brought over some like them to Malta in Birgu. The Good Friday procession is a liturgical activity to commemorate the Passion and Death of Our lord Jesus Christ, this solemn and mourning event changes to a real joy on the Resurrection of Christ because Easter is the climax of this great event. 

Four types of processions

During the Good Friday Week in Birgu used to organize four types of processions and these used to start from different churches and chapels.  The first one used to take place on Holy Wednesday and started from Mount Carmel church at the wharf.  This procession was known as the Black Procession because the seamen employed with the fleet of the Order of the Knights took part in it.  They accompanied with black attire and with faces concealed, this was the sole reason why the name Black Procession was organized.  The crews of the Order’s galleys took part in this procession.  There used to be included baptized slaves, forzati and even condemned individuals for any crime wearing and dragging a chain.  In fact this had been the origin of the practice that survived to this day with penitents in the procession dragging by each heel a heavy length of iron chain.Another procession used to start from the Annunciation church on Maundy Thursday, and on Good Friday two other processions used to take part, one started from the Greek chapel and in the evening another one took part and used to start from the Parish church of St Lawrence.  The chapel of the Greek community was dedicated to Our Lady of Damascus where today stands the Church Museum in the oratory of St Joseph.  All these processions do not take part any more today and they stopped functioning in 1869 and today only one is left, the one from the Parish church. 

Good Friday statues in the Parish 

The whole set of statues in Birgu consists of nine statues including the Risen Christ, some are slightly different than the others because of their Spanish origin, they are unique in Malta because they have real cloth made of rich velvet, silk and satin.  The sequence of how they take part in the procession is as follows: 

1         Agony in the Garden

2         Scourging at the Pillar

3         Crowning with Thorns

4         The Redeemer

5         The Veronica

6         Crucifixion

7         Christ Dead

8         Our Lady of Sorrows 

Agony in the Garden 

The actual period this statue was made in is also unknown, both the head and hands of Christ were made of stucco.  The artistic work was recently compared with that of Giacomo Serpotta, others claim that the head was made by Melchiorre Gafa`, a famous sculptor from Birgu, the brother of Lorenzo the architect of the Parish church.  The angel in this statue was made by Giuseppe Caruana in 1946.  This was made instead of another by Giovanni Darmanin of Valletta, which was broken during World War II.   

 

Scourging at the Pillar 

This is an artistic statue by Salvu Psaila from Cospicua, it is made of wood in 1831.  This is one of the most beautiful statues in the whole set showing Christ being scourged at the pillar.  It was artistically painted and decorated by Don Joseph Calleja, it depicts in detail Christ’s physical state after flagellation during His Martyrdom.  In 1964 this statue was restored again by Mr Apap.   

Crowning with Thorns 

This is also an artistic statue made of wood by Salvu Psaila in1832.  It was made instead of an older one that is now placed in a niche in St Anne’s church known as Santa Scholastica by the locals.  The present one represents Christ resting and almost sitting on a pillar and crowned with thorns wearing a velvet cloak on His shoulders and holding a silver rod.  This rod will be replaced by a gold one for the procession.  This statue was also restored and given a suffering expression by Don Joseph Calleja. 

 

The Redeemer

This is an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ which is venerated throughout the Maltese islands.  This particular statue was made of papier mache` with a red robe by Carlo Darmanin of Senglea in 1865.  During the Holy Week and in the procession it will be dressed in a robe made of velvet.  This statue was also made to replace an older one which was brought from Spain.  The older one was given back to its benefactors but nobody knows what happened to it.  The present cross of this statue was made of wood and encased with ebony sheeting.

 

The Veronica 

Very little is known about this statue, it was brought from Spain in the second half of the 18th century, artist is unknown and no dates are available.  This statue depicts a woman dressed in Jewish attire.  This statue is the original and it is still how it came to Malta from Spain, it was unchanged. 

Crucifixion

 Very little is known about this largest statue in the whole set, it consists of four figures.  This was also brought from Spain in the same period of that of the Veronica.  The Crucifix in this statue was made in Milan in 1826.  Most probably this was the first statue from the whole set that was imported from Spain.  The four figures represent Christ on the cross, Our Lady of Sorrows, St John the Evangelist and Mary of Magdala.

 Christ Dead           

This statue is known as the “Monument” by the Maltese.  This word is derived from the Latin Monumentum that means a tomb.  The statue of Christ dead is an artistic masterpiece by Wistin Camilleri.  The bed is of great importance in history since during the occupation of the Knights the bed was used regularly by the Knights.  Dead bodies of prominent personalities like Bailiffs, Grandmasters, Priors, on occasions even Bishops used to be carried on it.  In 1793 Gaetan Nicholas worked on the ornaments in silver ‘a martello’.  The bed was made in 1750 by Philip Vella, and the silver work was made on a wooden frame by Angelo zarb also ‘a martello’ .  In 1950 this was restored by Carmel Pace F’araud paid for by Chev Domenico Azzopardi. 

 

Our Lady of Sorrows

 Likewise little is known about this statue, it was brought in the same period as the previous two statues mentioned above.  In this statue St John was made by a local unknown artist in 1906, it replaced a small angel holding a crown made of thorns. 

 

Resurrection of Christ 

This statue was made by Salvu Psaila in 1833, this is carried in the procession which takes place in the joyous morning of Easter Sunday every year through the principal streets of Birgu.  This procession of the Risen Christ in Birgu was initiated by the Greek Papas in Birgu.  The Papas used to give hard-boiled eggs to children and adults.  In Malta this custom was replaced by the traditional figolla which eventually also started in Birgu.  This present statue of the Risen Christ replaced an older one.  During the French occupation 1798-1800 in Malta before 1800 the Order’s standard (a white cross on a red background) was replaced by a palm in Christ’s hand.  This was a precaution not to offend the French that were the greatest enemies of the Order of St John.  The palm was more suitable because it symbolized Christ as a victim and Martyr.  One will wonder how the tradition of joy during Easter in Birgu started.  Devotion of the Risen Christ was well known here among the Greeks (Rhodians) who came with the Knights from the island of Rhodes in 1530 because they were forced out by the Ottoman Empire in 1522

Traditional Runs 

The traditional runs by enthusiasts with the statue of the Risen Christ during the procession of Easter Sunday, were originated in the beginning of the 19th century.  It was the first British Governor Sir Thomas Maitland who introduced a clause for a limited time of the procession, so that the statue does not linger outside more than the stipulated time enforced by him.  If the procession took unnecessary time in the streets and goes beyond the limit the committee would be fined.  However, this was the main reason why enthusiasts run occasionally through the streets in Cottonera to avoid wasting time and at the same time they cover more streets as much as they could with the time provided.Today these traditional runs in Birgu are made about six or seven times, obviously the reason today is totally different, the law and all the past precautions taken to avoid a penalty were changed into a tradition.

The Oratory of the Holy Crucifix 

The whole set of the Good Friday Procession are housed in the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix and its annex. The Oratory of the Holy Crucifix was built in 1720 on the graveyard of those who fell during the Siege of 1565.

The last preparations before the Good Friday procession

Photos provided by Mr. Lawrence Parascandalo and Mr. Gregory Gauci