THE DOG IN THE CEILING OF THE CATHEDRAL
It was a dog on the ceiling of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta that used to distract me during liturgy. Instead of following the celebration, my whole attention used to be focused on one ceiling painting where a dog was just stepping into the banquet hall of King Herod. That lively dog has endured time and is still there in the masterpiece of Mattia Preti. One can still see it on the left side of the vault of the cathedral, in the first arcade above the marble statue of St John baptising Christ.
It was tradition for some to attend the cathedral celebrations on certain Sundays. The younger ones, myself included, did not share at all the enthusiasm of the adults that accompanied us for the celebrations.
But, anyway, we went along, walking from Floriana through the Granaries and the Biscuttin towards those not-so-compelling events. One may understand how sluggish our stride was. Such events were not so interesting to boys full of energy who, like other boys, preferred to run and play about.
Liturgy then was not appealing to us at all. It was lengthy, Mass was in Latin, singing was done by a men’s choir, though orderly and precise, made up of seminarians accompanied by the majestic organ. Mass would always begin by a cortege of monsignors, moving slowly towards the altar. The lengthy homily, from a pulpit high up over our heads, did not contribute much to my eagerness or to that of my colleagues. The occasion seemed to be never-ending.
That is the main reason why the dog on the ceiling drew my attention so much and grabbed my imagination. Today, whenever I go to the cathedral, I have a cursory look at the dog, still standing on the same step, facing the king’s table. But now I reason things out differently.
Loving memories come immediately to mind, bringing with them many thankful emotions towards those who made those experiences possible. I sincerely pray for those of them who have passed away. It was they who imbued in me a sense of the sacred and of what is truly beautiful. That painting on the ceiling no longer draws my attention away from what is going on in the cathedral. I still cherish the memory of those persons as if they are still standing next to me. I’ve grown up with them and my life was shaped by their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their love towards what is sacred and beautiful.
The ceremonies, to which they looked forward to with so much expectation, were a clear indication of their appreciation of the sacred. For now I realise that those celebrations were not only sacred; they took place in an atmosphere of culture. They were beautiful, classical events.
The cathedral embraces within it the culture of a Church which, first of all, has always celebrated beauty in its liturgy and proclaimed it in a way that still continues from generation to generation, celebrated also in sculpture and in painting – expressing so nobly the life and mission of St John. It is no wonder, then, that people who enter the cathedral for the first time and look around them move their heads up towards the grandiose ceiling and express their astonishment so clearly in front of such rare beauty.
We did also have time to go around the church, with a brief explanation on the marvelous Belgian tapestries which, in those days, used to be beautifully hung across the main arcades on special occasions. I also remember as a child being taken aside to a chapel on the right wing of the cathedral, precisely the Spanish Auberge, where there is a monument depicting two Turks with hands tied behind their backs. We were invited to note the finesse of the white marble statues, such as the blue veins evident in the arms of these effigies.
The memories the dog in the cathedral time and again brings to my mind evoke in me some reflections.
The cathedral attracts people from all over the world who are so impressed by what they behold. But, unfortunately, for many of us, sacred art may not be one of our interests and we may perhaps be living a life of cultural mediocrity. There may be Maltese citizens who have never set foot in the cathedral. They would only know about their parish church and about the things around it. We should talk to such people and reveal the beauty of sacred art and encourage them to visit such places as St John’s Co-Cathedral whenever they happen to be in the city.
There is no need for one to have had higher education to be able to appreciate the heritage we have received in sacred art. A disposition to value the architectural and artistic heritage that belongs to our island may be a first step in the right direction. One has to be convinced that sacred art is an important element in Christianity.
As in earlier times it has a didactic scope, even today it is still a means of inspiration and an invitation to reflection on what we believe in. Sacred art can be an opportunity to open up a dialogue between the work of art and the person. It may still inspire spiritual benefit to the beholder.
One may add another recommendation, that one be acquainted with men and women of culture; discussion with such people would strengthen one’s taste for learning.
Sacred art has a long history and moved with the times. The style in sacred art, as in all art, reflects both the status of its social context as well as particular traits belonging uniquely to the artist or sculptor. Certain art may be quite understandable while modern art may put greater emphasis on the message. It is good to cultivate within us a culture that distinguishes between different styles of art: This makes us appreciate better what artists try to tell us through their works.
The dog on the ceiling of the cathedral still opens to me a window to sacred art. It also invites me to acknowledge so much good that I have received from others, especially during my childhood. The old temptation may be persistently there but it is my pleasure not to resist to this temptation and to give a hurried glance at the dog, even if, at the moment, this may be a brief alienation from what is more important.