St Gaetan niche in Ħamrun gets a ‘makeover’

Before and after of St Gaetan statue restoration

Keeping in mind the need to conserve the various architectural gems within the locality, the Ħamrun Local Council felt the need to restore the St Gaetan niche in St Joseph High Road, Ħamrun.

The statue represents, Saint Gaetan (Cajetan) holding the Christ Child. He is dressed in a cassock with a collar but no skullcap, while the infant is wrapped in heavy drapery folds. Beneath, is a pedestal with acanthus leaves and egg decoration surmounting a floral-decorated corbel. The niche and statue are built in globigerina limestone from local sources. The statue is possibly carved out of one stone block with various mechanical tools.

The work mainly involved the cleaning, treatment and presentation of the stonework, within the conservation ethics of minimal intervention. The cleaning started from the uppermost part of the niche, working gradually down to the lower most point.

Mechanical and chemical cleaning tests were undertaken to identify the most efficient and least invasive method to be utilised. The cleaning was done mechanically using water and mechanical tools (such as vegetal brushes and tooth brushes), to remove biological growth.

On more durable deposits such as black crust, mechanical cleaning using a surgical blade was required. The intervention involved the filling of cracks and alveolar crevices using conservation grade lime-based materials.

Reconstruction or ‘plastic repair’ was carried out on the statue and on the stone pedestal which were in an advanced state of deterioration. This was done with a lime-based mortar. A lime-based velatura was also applied.

The restoration work was undertaken by Heritage Resco.

Past restoration

According to Joe Cordina, who lives in the house on which the niche is affixed, the statue was in a severe state of deterioration in the 1990s and it was thereby decided that an Italian restorer should intervene to repair the statue.

The statue was lowered and taken to a workshop, where a significant intervention was undertaken. There was no available written documentation about this intervention; however, on observation it seems that the entire back of the statue was deteriorated, since from this intervention, it is clear that the sculpturing of the back was from a different hand. Also loose elements such as the figures’ head and infant Jesus arm seem to have been pinned for stability.

The Italian restorers and Mr Cordina with the statue. Photo credit: Joe Cordina

There was also a hard mortar repair in the lower areas of the hair and back part of the neck and upper back.

Who was St Gaetan?

In 1542, St Cajetan (St Gaetan) founded the Theatine order. Members lived together in evangelical poverty like monks but served in the world like parish priests. They wore cassocks, not monastic habits. Images of Cajetan always have him in a cassock with a high collar. In some he also has a white surplice and a stole, which priests wear when administering various sacraments to the laity. In rare cases he will be pictured in a biretta (skullcap). Images may also include a book, lily stalk, or crucifix.

The Acta Sanctorum (August vol. 2, 241) cites a number of documents, one by Cajetan himself, concerning a vision he had at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome on Christmas Eve, 1517. While he was visiting the crèche the Virgin Mary handed him the Christ Child to hold in his arms. Many images show the saint receiving the child from the Virgin Mary, while others have him holding or kissing the child.