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Tas-Silġ - Evolution of a Goddess

Liam Aguis

 

In an article published in the Sunday Times of Malta of 28th March 1999, Peter Serracino Inglott analysed Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s Madonna as Earth Goddess exhibition. Amidst a number of intriguing elements, Serracino Inglott explained that “there is at least one site in Malta—Tas-Silġ—where the succession of transformations of the object of worship from Earth goddess […] to Byzantine Virgin Mary is visible”. The Maltese philosopher underlined that he does “not think that any one before Giuseppe had actually shown the Mother of Christ actually in the abundant shapes of the fertility goddess [with] the mangled form of the historic Christ [having] as its aureole of glory the prelapsarian (prehistoric) figure of the Mother.”

 

Lying on a hill halfway between the old cities of Żejtun and Marsaxlokk, the topography of which has made it Malta’s safest harbour since time immemorial, the Tas-Silġ archaeological site allows us a very intriguing look at the evolution of religious-cosmic practices throughout Malta’s Mediterranean antiquity. Tas-Silġ is unique on the island in that it has been used as a religious site from Neolithic times all the way into the present day, and that the worship or reverence of feminine divinity was a constant throughout most of these years: the Fertility Goddess, the Egyptian Hathor, the Roman Juno, the Byzantine Virgin Mary, the Phoenician Astarte, and, at a later stage, also the Carthaginian Melkart, Protector of the Universe.

 

Originally constructed during the Neolithic period by the Maltese temple civilisation, it was later inhabited by Bronze Age settlers. Subsequently, it was expanded and rebuilt during Phoenician, Punic, Roman, and Byzantine times, with some also claiming that a mosque stood at the site during Malta’s Arab occupation.

 

Nowadays, an 1832 chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows (Il-Madonna tas-Silġ) stands here, just a minute’s walk away from the archaeological site. This chapel gives the area - previously known as Il-Kasar or Ta’ Berikka - its current name.

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Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, 'Omm', 1998.

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, 'Pietà', 1998.

Isis

Isis: The Throne Goddess

Matthew Shirfield

The rich history of the Mediterranean countries owes much to their ancient past. Endowed with deep cultural beliefs and deities, civilisations thrived artistically and established an unsurpassable legacy.

As order slowly emerged from chaos, different religious and spiritual rituals were sought not only to understand the fundamental meaning of existence, but also to build a sense of community governed by a unified belief system. Goddesses with varying aptitudes where revered in the temples built to upheave the world from earth.

Deities served as superior ideals of existence which seemingly controlled that which could not be humanly controlled. This was coloured further by ancient civilisations’s intricate mythological narrative which incorporated dramatic battles as well as intimate love stories. Without a doubt, one of the most influential deities to ever grace the sacred walls of ancient times was the Egyptian Mediterranean goddess, Isis.

Isis’s pictorial representation is consistently accompanied by that of the throne, thus dubbed as the ‘Throne Goddess’: loyal wife to the traditional order of Osiris and tender mother to the redeemer, the all-seeing Horus: the central divine family of Egyptian myth. Iris’s role developed throughout the c. 3000 years of Egyptian history, emerging as one of the most widely worshipped deities.

As in the Biblical Cain and Abel story, Osiris was struck down by his vengeful brother Seth. Isis first appears in this unfortunate narrative as the doting wife seeking to reassemble the dismembered parts of her husband’s remains in the hope of restoring order to the Kingdom. During a long vigil, the goddess protected her husband’s remains whilst also bearing a child, conceived by a flash of divine fire. This pietà-mosaic will find its echo in the Christian description of the Virgin Mary as ‘Mater et filia’, and in Dante’s Paradiso as “Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio”.

In later years Isis was hailed as the goddess of the Mediterranean Sea who guided ships towards the kingdom. In Greco-Roman times Plutarch suggested that Isis willfully revealed her sorrow as a source of comfort, offering consolation to all those who were suffering. It was this interpretation interweaved with her tender maternal characteristics that arguably came close to rival Christianity during the first millennium.

According to the Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, Cleopatra identified herself with the goddess Isis and equated her pregnancy with the divine one bringing forth a fatherless son. She joined forces with Mark Anthony who identified himself with Dionysius, the Greek god who was often recognised as Osiris, Isis’s husband. This led to a seismic political turmoil that changed the Mediterranean forever.

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'Isis and Horus',    664–30 B.C.

Mohammed Naghi, ‘La Renaissance de l’Égypte ou Le Cortège d’Isis’, 1923.

One Goddess

The One Goddess

Matthew Shirfield

‘From her everything, that is, is born’ wrote the Greek dramatist Euripides in reference to the ancient belief in matriarchal monotheism of the one Mother Goddess.


Throughout the entire Mediterranean there are several statues and statuettes which are believed to be dedicated to this generatrix and all-devourer. This belief stemmed from the concept of the eternal feminine; the ritual bearer of birth as well as of death.


Through studies of Aegean cultures, academics have determined that these statues were at times used for funerary purposes. Thus, the image of the absolute female, with her supernatural proportions that exceed the bounds of caricature, was not only a symbol of maternal nature but also a symbol of death and chaos.

 

Characteristically represented with exaggeratedly proportioned breasts and thighs, the fundamental meaning and role of this deity is that of the bringer and nurturer of life; the eternal Mother. At times recognised as Mother Earth or, as the Greeks called her, Gaia, this deity gave life and, in the end, absorbed it back within herself. Her role as the nurturer recalls Hesiod’s story (c.700 B.C.) of the origin of the cosmos emerging from one supreme female deity, where he refers to her as the ‘Broad-breasted Gaia, the secure lap of all.’ The fact that the Maltese word for ‘life’ is ħajja makes this element more fascinating.


This reference to the eternal Mother can also be found on the Maltese Islands, most clearly in the Gozo Ġgantija, Taxien, Ħaġar Qim and other temples which provide an architectural spiritual demonstration of these prehistoric beliefs. The temples are believed to have been constructed in the form of the One Goddess, allowing worshipers to enter through the womb so as to be reborn once more; a concept which is echoed in Christian baptism and Church architecture to this day.

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'Ġgantija Temples', c. 3600 B.C.

'Goddess of Ħaġar Qim', c. 3600 B.C.

The Virgin Mary and the One Goddess

Matthew Shirfield

According to the Russian philosopher, mathematician, and theologian Pavel Florensky, the study of female deities places the researcher on a trail towards a female monotheism. His understanding was that all the female Goddesses that emerged throughout the ancient realms were in fact isolated facets of the one Mother. Within the context of what Florensky identifies as ‘female religions,’ the male god is associated with order, suffering, and martyrdom; aspects of which can be evidently seen from a previous blog post about Isis and her murdered husband, Osiris. Most female deities are associated with the all-encompassing chaos which gives birth to order and then absorbs it within itself once again. However, the archetype of the suffering male god is also present within biblical stories which give reverence to the hierarchical heavenly Father. Thus, one may argue that this aspect of the suffering male god may be interpreted as a permeation of past religious beliefs.

It is within this context of a constant revelation flow that one may edge closer to understanding Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s representations of the Christian Virgin Mother interpreted through primordial prehistoric forms. The theological and spiritual mystery of Mary, Theotokos, which is encompassed by Dante in his verses ‘Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son,’ bears an approximation to the One Goddess as the bringer of life and the absorber of death. Mary is the bearer of Jesus Christ, who at the same time is the doting mother mourning her son as he is placed on her lap. This echoes the prehistoric ashes that were ritualistically placed on the thighs of the One Goddess.

By re-membering these two female figures of worship, Schembri Bonaci’s works merge the deities’ ordered and recognizable iconographic representations, returning them back to the womb which is the original conceptual origin of all things - chaos itself. It is only through this process that the artist negates the contemporary normative absorption that renders society spiritually numb and opens the possibility for re-discovery. As beautifully articulated by Peter Serracino Inglott in an article published in the Sunday Times of Malta in 1999, Schembri Bonaci’s works, dialectically encompass a whole ‘Prehistoric-Byzantine’ wave and are a representation of ‘the titanic battle between evolution and entropy, or rather [they are a depiction showing] the temporary victories of entropy embodied and embedded in the larger flow of everlasting life.’

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'Goddess of Ħaġar Qim', c. 3600 B.C.

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, ‘Pietà’, 1498-9.

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Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, 'Pietà', 1998.

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci - Echoing Echoes through Metall u Skiet

'Metall u Skiet' ('Metal and Silence') forms part of the Venice Biennale 2022 Malta Pavilion 'Diplomazija Astuta'.

This video shows the most important points in Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci's work-in-progress that ultimately led to the final piece.

The soundscape is based on Brian Schembri's original score.

 

https://www.maltapavilion2022.com

 

The 2022 Malta Pavilion was curated by Jeffrey Uslip and Keith Sciberras.

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