This post deals with a sculptural tradition that is neither Spanish nor Nativity related, but since it has been months since I last posted here – because of the demands of the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association and its blog – I am simply going to go for it because I think it’s interesting.
On a recent visit to the island of Malta during Holy Week, I was mystified to see banners and signs all over Valetta, and in fact any place I went on the island, advertising something called a “Wirja” (pronounced wier-ya). It turned out that in Maltese, “wirja” simply means exhibition: but what an exhibition! The photo below is a wirja in a private home in the city of Birkirkara on Malta.
Malta has a long and rich tradition of Passion figures and dioramas, and these are the substance of the “wirja.” (The plural is “wirjiet,” hence the title of this article.)
The dioramas are generally staged in an elaborately decorated room or a space carved out of a larger room with a sort of tent of wall hangings, a cloth ceiling, and panels behind the dioramas. These are usually placed on a long “U” made out of narrow tables or shelves, and on average measured about 18” deep by 24” wide, although more space was left around them for the supplementary items that had to be displayed with each scene.
Above is the wirja of the well-known collector and builder Angelo Fenech, who creates this spectacular scene every year in the living room of his sister in law, Teresa. His scenes include more than 500 figures.
In fact, the wirja you see above has another theme: it is actually a model of the interior of a church in Mdina, and the spaces that hold the dioramas evoke the side chapels of the church. Malta has a great tradition of Holy Week processions, similar to that of Spain, and, as in Spain, the processional floats are often kept in the side chapels outside of Holy Week. So you will see life-size or larger figures in the churches that are the same as the tiny figures in the Passion dioramas. Below, Veronica holds out her veil.
There are usually 14 or 15 scenes, representing many of the scenes familiar to us from the Stations of the Cross but starting with the Agony in the Garden or sometimes from the Last Supper. Sometimes the Last Supper appeared elsewhere, in a prominent location, in the chain of scenes, because the Maltese have a very profound Eucharistic devotion, as evidenced by this real Altar of Repose for Holy Thursday/Good Friday in a church in Valetta.
Some of the dioramas are enclosed, but most of them are placed on beautiful hand-crafted wooden boxes that served as small platforms for the figures. In addition to the figures themselves, there are miniature symbolic articles included with each “Station,” such as a tiny rooster to indicate Peter’s denial of the Lord, miniature dice and instruments of the Passion, etc. The figures below, from Angelo Fenech’s wirja, are about 7”-8” inches high.
Many of the figures are made by sculptors on the small Maltese island of Gozo (pronounced Go-djo) and are sold in shops in Valetta or bought directly from the artists by the individuals, parishes or associations that set up the wirjiet. The Valetta store below, Saulus, sells Passion figures and accoutrements.
The above photos were all taken this year (2013) on the island of Malta, some in Valetta and some in Birkirkara. But wherever you go towards the end of Lent and during Holy Week, you will find these little works of art. Below is a wirja of Passion dioramas built by a parish organization.