The Maltese Islands are a beautiful maze of historical buildings, medieval streets and winding alleys, sporting both the modern aspect of bustling life, as well as more traditional rural characteristics, which take us back to our roots. The rural environment of these islands indeed features its own particular treasures, offering a landscape not only replete with a variety of flora and fauna, but also full with colourful depictions of the Maltese heritage, like rubble walls, corbelled stone huts, windmills, as well as a large number of small wayside chapels which pepper the countryside, as well as most villages.
These chapels, traditionally called ‘kappelli’ (this is the plural form, the singular form is ‘kappella’), in derivation of the Italian word ‘cappella’ as well as its priest, the ‘kappillan’, derivative of ‘cappellano’, are most commonly known today as parish churches. They are usually small and simple in form, and often built on a rectangular or squarish plan, with most often a single doorway (although some of them have a secondary one as well), and a circular window placed exactly above the main door in order to let in the sunlight.
The earliest wayside chapels are presumed to date back to the 12th and 13th century, when monks from Southern Italy started the process of the re-Christinisation of the Maltese Islands, since before that time, Malta had been under the influence of the Arab presence. The oldest chapels are rock-cut churches, also called crypta, which were churches either hewn into the cliff face, or adapted from natural caves. A few examples of these rock-cut chapels include the Chapel of St Paul the Hermit at Wied il-Għasel in Mosta, the Dominican Church of Our Lady in the Cave in Rabat, as well as the Sanctuary of the Nativity of Our Lady in Mellieħa.
The oldest wayside chapels are quite plain and unadorned, with a cylindrical or square apse, a slightly pitched roof and a low doorway. Stone benches were usually found along the sides of the church, and the floor itself was either covered with flagstones, or with beaten earth (‘torba’). They were poorly illuminated and very few of them had church bells, since these were costly and, at the time, only incorporated in larger churches.
While in the countryside, one can come across a chapel standing among the rubble walls and fields, which probably is a remnant of some small community of farmers who used to live in the vicinity, the wayside chapels with the best adornment and architectural features are surely those built during the time of the Order of Saint John. This is because the Order had more funds to invest on them, as well as serving as patrons to a number of sculptors, architect, and painters who could adorn them.
There could be several reasons why such an intense concentration of wayside chapels is found on such a relatively small island. One could be that at the time, the strong Catholic faith was particularly focused upon, as a backlash after the incursion of the Turks, another reason could be that many chapels were built in resolution to a vow, in thanksgiving for a grace or favour received from a saint. This would explain why for example, there are many chapels dedicated to one particular saint, such as Saint Roch/Roque, the protector against infectious diseases. One must also keep in mind that at the time, people worked and lived in small village clusters, and that the distance between one settlement and another was difficult on foot, since roads were almost non-existent in most areas, therefore a chapel near each settlement would have been more convenient.
It is a pity that several of these medieval chapels today are in a state of total abandonment, however one should also be aware of the many initiatives and efforts taken by a number of parishes, Local Councils, NGOs and other institutions, to restore and rehabilitate many such roadside chapels. One hopes that this movement of restoration continues, and that these small but precious architectural jewels, testament of Maltese history and culture, continue to flourish.