With Valletta’s transformation into the European Capital of Culture 2018, a number of cultural events, talks, exhibitions and activities started enhancing our capital city, promoting and highlighting our multi-varied traditional heritage, as well as adding colour and verve to an already beautiful and enchanting historical location.
FRAGMENTA, a cultural platform presenting contemporary art in the form of pop-up public exhibitions, is a cultural programme supported by Valletta 2018, whose mission is to offer exposure to current local and foreign artists in order to titillate our senses and evolve our mental faculties.
One of these events – the exhibition with the intriguing title of ‘The Snake Show’, is currently taking place in one of the meandering picturesque and romantic Valletta alleys. Entering the tiny space, curated by Bettina Hutschek, one is immediately assaulted by the feeling of stepping back in time, as the entrance of an old Maltese home renovated into an art gallery comes to the fore. One is immediately greeted by a number of volunteers manning the reception stand, given a small printed booklet explaining all the works of art, and also offered a tasty snake cookie baked especially for the occasion. Needless be said, I was totally won over.
Defining the concept of ‘art’ is not an easy task, yet one clearly perceives that any artwork is as powerful as it is evocative – a work of art stimulates emotions, digging into our self-conscious thoughts and preconceived ideas of what the background story of each and every item is all about.
‘The Snake Show’ does not feature any live snakes. It is not an exhibition focusing on the snake as an animal, as a species or as a pet. It is an acknowledgment and a study of the way in which the figure of the snake was, and is still being depicted by society. Starting out in ancient times as a figure connected to wisdom, fertility and renewal, venerated as the totem animal of a number of pagan goddesses, the symbolic aspect of the snake was always an important one. Found painted in ancient caves and depicted in places of worship, this animal was always somehow associated with beautiful and powerful women, like the goddess Ishtar, also known as Astarte, whose Phoenician temple dominates the temple ruins at Tas-Silġ, and the Greek/Roman myth of the gorgon Medusa, whose head writhing with snakes features in a mosaic at Rabat’s Domus Romana.
With the advent of Christianity, the metaphor of the serpent changed, as did society’s view of women. The snake was associated with original sin, with evil and with repellently alluring temptresses such as Lillith, Adam’s first wife. It became the dragon to be hunted and destroyed, and it was vanquished in various forms, along with Satan, allegorically again and again, not only in the Bible, but in other works of art and literature.
Malta has its own re-interpretation of the serpent myth, illustrated in the famous story of Saint Paul’s advent to our shores. Shipwrecked here on his way to a trial in Rome, the Saint is said to have been bitten by a small local snake (lifgħa) while eating near the fire. The guards and people near him thought the poison of the bite would kill him, but it did not, proving to them that he was really God’s apostle. After this, the saint was proven a healer, when he cured the local Roman leader, Publius’ father from a serious fever. Publius converted to Christianity as did many others on the islands.
In reality, the llifgħa, or ‘leopard snake’ is not poisonous at all, and it has been theorized that Saint Paul, instead of being victorious over a venom-less snake, was actually instrumental in stamping out a local pagan cult remnant of an old culture, which probably venerated the snake as a symbol of fertility. This made him a champion of Christianity which became the new religion on the island. All this, of course, is pure conjecture, since all we have are myths and theories.
During the exhibition, once can admire a cacophony of diverse artistic forms of expression – snake skins and resonant paintings, lie side-by-side with a popular lifestyle magazine portraying the pop-icon Rihanna dressed in a slinky Medusa costume, as well as small statues of the blessed Virgin Mary stepping on a snake, a postcard depicting Adam and Eve during ‘the Fall’, and an interactive videogame, among others. ‘The Snake Show’ perfectly blends philosophical renderings of archaeological remnants, together with the social perception of such symbolism today.
‘The Snake Show’ exhibition took place at 188b, St Lucy Street, Valletta from the 2nd to the 11th of February.