Malta is an impenetrable maze built out of new concrete and old limestone, and it holds many secrets.
B’Kara is not one such secret. People from my neck of the woods generally go there in order to buy something specific such as a new pair of football boots, but it turns out that the town has more to offer than that. Recently, through sheer serendipity, I discovered a quaint old chapel known as Is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Ħerba, which, albeit lacking that new-thing smell like said new football boots, was still great.
While I advise the reader not to fully trust my Maltese-English translation skills, ħerba roughly means ‘destruction’. No one knows why the sanctuary is called this, though there are a number of legends* which I won’t elaborate on because these are a dime a dozen around these parts.
Concealed in a dead-end alley close to the far larger St Helen’s Basilica (Santa Liena), the sanctuary is easy to miss. In 1575, it was already known as a place of worship, though it wasn’t expressly referred to as Tal-Ħerba until later.
The sanctuary, seemingly unimpressive from the outside, contains a number of treasures and interesting features, not least among them being this beautiful sculpture done in the rococo style. I couldn’t find any information about who the sculptor was, but it is undoubtedly a work of art of the highest quality.
Pride of place has been given to the above object. It looks like one of those yellowing fake flower bouquets you’re likely to find in the props room of the Manoel Theatre, but what it actually is – according to the friendly sacristan – is a gift from Grand Master de La Valette. Churches and chapels all over the islands make boastful claims of this sort. It’s the old ‘my piece of the true cross is bigger than your piece of the true cross’ fixation. Whether true or not, items such as these add character to such places of worship.
Elsewhere in the church, the sacristan took me into a rather splendid room with walls that were absolutely covered with ex-voto paintings, the majority of which have a maritime theme.
Ex-voto paintings are those which are painted following a prayer as the fulfillment of a vow. Viewing them made me feel connected to the community of worshipers who found solace and comfort inside this sanctuary. They represent their fears brought to life, but each of the hundreds of paintings tells the story of a loved one who came home or was saved, and the chamber is therefore a testament to the resounding sense of hope that the devotees found in their faith.
The best feature of this church, however, was the sacristan – a pleasant, generous man who was willing to share his profound love of the church with anyone who shows an interest.
So the next time you’re in B’Kara and the local cathedral of sporting goods hasn’t got your size, go for a stroll, and if you stumble upon an old treasure-laden church guarded by lazy cats and tended by an old custodian who endlessly sweeps the marble floors, go in and say hi, and if your smile is wide enough, he might just show you around.
Location map: Link
*There are a few predominant but loose theories regarding the name of the chapel. The first is that ‘ħerba’ is derived from the adjective ‘mħarbta’, and the area in which the chapel is situated used to be quite underdeveloped. The second theory is based on the legend of a group of men who sought sanctuary in the chapel after being chased by ruffians. The church came to be known as ‘Tal-Ħarba’ which then evolved into ‘Tal-Ħerba’. It is also believed that the chapel was one of the first sanctuaries dedicated to the Holy Mary after the Turks fled Malta, hence also ‘Tal-Ħarba’.