The towns and villages of Malta and Gozo are particularly unique, and showcase a number of defining characteristics. Sporting a number of traditional and colourful features, they are charmingly retro at times, offering a landscape of bustling activity tempered by moments of blessed calm – most notably during hot summer afternoons when most villagers are either having a ‘siesta’ or swarming the local beaches.
One distinctly beautiful feature which tends to characterise most of our medieval villages and towns, is the stone niche. Valletta, the capital city, built during the 16th century by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, has a singularly numerous array of such niches housing sculptures and images of many particular saints. Indeed, one can actually be found at almost every corner of the road. Valletta was built under the direction of the famous Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, who designed the city as a rectangular grid plan with wide parallel straight streets. Niches are a sumptuous architectural feature which were added to commemorate not only patron saints, but other significant events in the lives of the people living in the area. They in fact, have an important part to play in the religious and social traditions of the Maltese people. Other notable towns having a large number of niches include the three cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, however almost each and every town and village in Malta and Gozo is interspersed with them.
In Roman times, niches holding depictions of pagan gods were already in vogue. Later, during the Christian era, images of Christ, Our Lady, and Christian Saints replaced these statues. These niches are usually decorated with flowers and lit with candles, transforming them into small shrines where one can stop for a moment, pray and collect one’s thoughts.
Standing sentry at street corners, some of these niches are simple in form, while others are more architecturally elaborate, usually even hinting at the way the particular saint died, or at some important event in his/her life. Although mostly found at street corners, sometimes one meets a niche along a narrow winding street, or at the beginning of a sheltered alley.
There are generally two kinds of niches; those that have a cover, and those that are free-standing. Some people even build niches in their front yard, near their front door, or in their own back garden.
Niches serve several functions; they offer an opportunity for the faithful to pray when they come across one during their day, they also provide a familiar landmark and can serve as a meeting place, as well as decorating facades, towns and villages. In the past, a niche could also be a status symbol, since any member of the upper class who wished to make his status notorious, could erect such a shrine in order to shine. These niches were also traditionally erected as tribute by people who had previously made a vow to build one if their prayers were heard for a particular purpose, for example to aid the recovery of a loved one after an illness.
The popularity of niches created a demand in the field of sculpture and the arts. Maltese artists started to be commissioned to create figures of saints to decorate squares or facades, and this had an impact in the development of this type of artwork on the islands.
As Maltese, we rarely glance up at these historical pieces of art anymore, and yet there they are – ever present, symbolising not just a way of life, but the development of our culture as well.