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The Church Museum
In haste to visit such major sites as the Inquisitor's Palace and the Maritime Museum, the visitor to Birgu often unfairly overlooks the humble Museum of the Church of St. Lawrence. True: opening times may be erratic and unpredictable but this little museum, lovingly run by elderly volunteers contains a wealth of artefacts from Birgu through the ages. It consists of a major hall, decorated with the banners of the eight langues of the Knights and a further smaller room; curators have attempted to fit in more exhibits than there is space for, giving the impression of randomness and clutter. Staff are friendly and helpful however and above all, enthusiastic about the collection entrusted to them – they would be pleased to show you around and to provide further information to those who request it. There is no admittance fee, yet a small donation would be appropriate and appreciated.
The collection is housed in the Oratory of St. Joseph, formerly used as a chapel, built in 1554 behind the St. Lawrence Church.
Amongst the many interesting pieces of fine art within this confined space are: The Nativity by Rocco Buhagiar; a painting depicting St. Jerome by Mattia Preti and a Caravaggiesque, chiaroscuro Christ Crowned with Thorns. Other interesting items include an extensive pencil sketch showing a procession during the feast of St. Lawrence from the 18th Century, and a life size sculpture of Joseph and a juvenile Jesus by the celebrated Merchiorre Gafa'.
Religious artefacts include priestly garb and mannequins dressed up in the attire of the various confraternities. There are also some fine examples of choral books from the 16th Century and other religious publications including a 15th Century prayer book.
A long pair of silver tongs in this collection was used during outbreaks of the bubonic plague to administer the Eucharist to the diseased. On the altar in the inner room is an elaborate replica icon of the Madonna of Damascus, brought to Malta from Rhodes in 1530. It is believed that Grand Master La Vallette prayed on this spot during the Great Siege of 1565. A crucifix in this collection used to belong to the Inquisitor and another crucifix in the main hall was routinely used in public executions in the Birgu Main Square. The 17th century sedan chair was miraculously salvaged from beneath the rubble when part of the church of St. Lawrence was hit in an enemy attack. This sedan chair was used in viaticum processions – the administration of the Eucharist to the moribund.
A hat and a sword that used to belong to Grand master La Vallette are famously housed in inner room. The clock tower, sadly missed by the older residents of Birgu is commemorated with a three foot model; the minute hand of this clock is another prized possession of this museum. Remnants of bombs dropped over Birgu are grim reminders of the misery endured by the town in the blitz of the Second World War.