The passion of Good Friday

Paul Cocks goes on a personal journey to meet the amateurs behind the Holy Week pageantry

paul_cocks
Paul Cocks
14 April 2017, 9:00am
In Zejtun, people actually own the very Good Friday statues that are exhibited in church and carried in the procession
In Zejtun, people actually own the very Good Friday statues that are exhibited in church and carried in the procession
I stepped into the Juve bar in Zejtun, not knowing what to expect, but what I found was definitely not it. On the walls, there were no pictures of football players or some other inane subject; instead there were framed blueprints of wood etchings and scores of photos of Good Friday processions. 

I had mentioned to my brother-in-law that I was preparing an article on the participation of volunteers in Good Friday celebrations and how far some of them were willing to go in pursuit of their passion, and he immediately pointed me to this small bar in the Zejtun square.

“You have to speak to Frankie about our village,” he said. “We take Good Friday seriously in Zejtun.”

I thought ‘What could be so special?’ But my brother-in-law had never guided me wrong before, so there I was, stepping into the small bar and immediately spotted by the man behind the bar.

“You must be the guy from the newspaper,” he said, extending his hand. We shook hands and I told him why I was there. And so I came to learn his story and that of the four or five other men present in the bar.

Because Frankie Delia, I learned, did not merely celebrate Good Friday, he lived it all year round. And like so many other people I met while researching this article, he went to great lengths and spent a lot of money on what he considers to be the number one focus of his life.

But this, this was different. Because in Zejtun, people actually own the very Good Friday statues that are exhibited in church and carried in the procession.

Or rather, as Frankie told me, they owned the poles.

That’s right, the poles used to carry the statues – four, five or six men abreast, depending on the size of the statue – belong to a number of Zejtun families and are passed on from one generation to another.

On the walls, there were framed blueprints of wood etchings and scores of photos of Good Friday processions
On the walls, there were framed blueprints of wood etchings and scores of photos of Good Friday processions
In Frankie’s case, I learned that he owns the front four poles used to carry the Jesus and Judas statue.

“This statue was built in 1961 in Lecce by Angelo Capoccia on a commission paid for by my father, Lorry Delia, known as il-Popeye, and Leli Tabone,” he said. “They paid Lm230 for it back then.”

In essence, that statue was theirs, even if it was enjoyed by the whole parish. And Frankie inherited his father’s ‘share’, his poles, and he says they mean the world to him.

“Basically, having four out of eight poles, means I get to choose three other men to join me carry the statue every year,” he said. 

But of course, it also means he’s responsible for half the expenses incurred in the care, upkeep, maintenance and embellishment of the statue.

And this is where things become odd, because Frankie and the other pole owners in Zejtun are actually responsible for everything to do with their statues.

I learned that Frankie is the procurator for the statue of Jesus and Judas.

“That means I am the go-between between the parish and the other pole owners on my statue,” he said. “Anything to do with the statue of Jesus and Judas, I speak on behalf of the other owners.”

Frankie told me that the owners had changed the statue’s cradle, the ‘bradella’, in 2014.

That by itself cost €32,000 and Frankie, owner of half of the statue’s poles, had to dole out €16,000 as his share. But he did it willingly.

“Of course I would pay that and more for our statue,” he told me. “There are many expenses involved but we are prepared to do anything to maintain our statue in the best possible condition.”

The men around me were proud of the work, and it showed in their enthusiasm as they explained that the new cradle was built by a local, Vince Abela, with silverwork by the renowned Tarcisio, or Cizju.

€16,000. That’s what I paid for a brand new car eight months ago, I tell him. 

Frankie Delia (left) with other enthusiasts at Juve Bar
Frankie Delia (left) with other enthusiasts at Juve Bar
His answer: “So maybe you like cars. Me, I love Good Friday.”

And that’s what it comes down to.

There have also been other considerable expenses, such as commissioning new silver ‘forcini’ in the shape of a purse, that is the symbol associated with Judas and the statue that Frankie is procurator of.

He said that within two years’ time at the most, the statue will have to be restored.

“That will be a major expense, but the statue is more than 55 years old now, and it is time to do it,” he said.

Of course, the thought that there might not be the money to carry out such a restoration does not even cross his mind.

“If I could not afford it, I would go and borrow money, sell something, I would do anything.” Indeed, some other suggestions as to what he and the other men in the bar would be willing to do, as long as the statue gets the care it deserves, are not suitable for printing. 

Frankie told me that one pole on another statue was recently sold for more than €4,000.

But not him, he would never sell.

For Frankie and others like him in Zejtun, this is about pride of ownership, and having something worthwhile to pass on to the next generation. 

And when I left the Juve Bar, after only a short talk with Frankie, I was glad that I got to see a little of what he is really about and why he does this. 

To march with the Legions

While in Zejtun, I also met Renato Spiteri, another Good Friday enthusiast, but of a different kind. 

Renato looks ahead to Good Friday each year, to the day he gets to put on his Roman armour and march in the village procession.

Like all the other 550 or so people who participate in Zejtun’s Good Friday procession, Renato bought his own attire, of course following strict guidelines.

Like all the other 550 or so people who participate in Zejtun’s Good Friday procession, Renato bought his own attire, of course following strict guidelines
Like all the other 550 or so people who participate in Zejtun’s Good Friday procession, Renato bought his own attire, of course following strict guidelines
Like so many other men, women and children who will be participating in village processions come Friday, Renato says that his passion goes back to when he was a young boy. 

“It helps that in a village like Zejtun, people really love the Good Friday procession, because not all villages are like this,” he told me.

He is very proud of his armour, and rightly so.

And not only because it had cost him more than €5,800, but because it is something tangible that he intends to pass on to his son or nephew.

And speaking of commitment, Renato has a Roman legion wrist-guard tattooed on his left arm. On his right arm: S.P.Q.R.

It can hardly get any more passionate than that.

Volunteers, but on behalf of the parish

In Gharghur, I met two brothers who work with the parish’s feast committee and other volunteers to put up a Good Friday exhibition every year.

But Bertu and Joe Zarb, have also put up their own time and money to do so, and are immensely glad and proud of what they do.

The exhibition, including all the most popular statuettes we are familiar with, is set up within the committee’s own storage garage and it is as mesmerising as the story I learned.

Bertu Zarb
Bertu Zarb
Because all the statuettes on display, except for one, actually belong to Bertu; he has been collecting Good Friday statuettes for 27 years and has spent an insane amount of money on his passion.

The exhibition alone must have cost Bertu anything between €7,000 and €8,000 but he brushes aside any reference to what he’s spent.

“This is something I love doing, this is why I, my brother, and so many others like us, spend hours in this garage every day, all year round, working on restoring some piece or other,” he said.

Bertu explains that all his statuettes are the work of Gozitans Louis Gauci and Charles Vella. The two artists, I have since learned, are among the most respected on the islands.

Joe Zarb
Joe Zarb
The lone statuette in the display not belonging to Bertu – ‘Il-Marbut’ – is the proud possession of Dennis Spiteri, who has only recently started his own private collection with the statuette by Lorry Baldacchino. 

Dennis is nonetheless a very active member in the community, setting up one of the nationally top-judged mechanised Christmas cribs. (By the way, that alone cost him more than €14,000 to set up, and he keeps adding and tinkering with it every year.)

Together with James Lupi Spencer, Martin and the Zarb brothers, Dennis forms the core group behind the exhibition, but they all agree they would not be able to do anything without the support of many others, including the committee’s women and youth sections.

Dennis Spiteri
Dennis Spiteri
Let’s not forget that these people don’t get anything in return from these activities; any donations they receive are immediately routed to the committee and the parish, because they are not in for the money, else they would not be spending so much out of pocket in the first place.

What they do get in return is the appreciation of casual visitors, the respect of other enthusiasts and the gleam of excitement in the eyes of the children who flock to the display.

A display like no other

On the bypass to St Thomas Bay, I stop to visit an exhibit by Leli Baldacchino. His is different from any I’ve seen for two reasons: He has built a small set, like a large Christmas crib, but depicting major moments in the last days of Jesus’ life.

And he has turned a whole room into a scale replica of the inside of a church that is amazing to behold in its detail and majesty.

Leli Baldacchino's church replica
Leli Baldacchino's church replica
Leli explained to me that he too has spent years getting his exhibit together, making sure everything is exactly to scale and that anything he includes is a faithful reproduction of the original.

I could have spent hours oohing and aahing at all the minute details and the intricate and delicate ganutell work (which Leli told me was the work of his sister Maria) and the precise woodwork, which he himself does with the help of his nephew Clinton.

Leli Baldacchino
Leli Baldacchino
And although he said he could not put a price to his exhibition, Leli did point out that the damask alone had cost him more than €1,000 and the gold thread and trifoglie decorations had cost another €1,000 by themselves.

The statuettes, he said, were all the work of Nenu and Renato Delia, but everything else he had done himself, with the help of friends and relatives.

Leli Baldacchino has built a small set, like a large Christmas crib, but depicting major moments in the last days of Jesus’ life
Leli Baldacchino has built a small set, like a large Christmas crib, but depicting major moments in the last days of Jesus’ life
Looking around, I told him he must have spent more than €20,000 on the exhibit and he did not argue with the figure.

“It’s not that I don’t care how much I spent,” he said. “It’s just that for me this is not about money, but about a passion that I can show to others.”

They serve and protect, and some of them also do this

My last stop saw me walk into the Police headquarters to check out the Good Friday exhibition the force has been organising for years.

There I met WPC Isabelle Galea and WPC Bernardette Cutajar, two of the organising team that I was surprised to hear only included two other colleagues: PC Daniel Scerri and PC Mario Muscat.

But although a small team, they managed to put together an exhibition that is not to be missed.

The salt paintings on display, some of them the work of WPC Galea, were exquisite and a sight to behold. The detail, colour and features were out of this world.

I learned that many of the other items on display, including Roman armour replicas, an Arc of the Covenant and weaponry were mostly made out of cardboard, painstakingly made to replicate the originals at the hands of PC Muscat.

The result was uncanny as you cannot tell the difference without feeling the material.

Sharing the passion

I must admit, before I met Frankie, Renato, Bertu, Joe, Dennis or Leli, I was a bit sceptical of men who would spend so much time, and oh so much money, on what was for me nothing more than a hobby. 

But after I learned their stories and heard the passion in their voices and the conviction of their work, I found myself looking at these men with a new-found respect.

For theirs might be a passion I do not share, but it is damn focused and consistent. And let’s face it. In these times where interest spans are counted in minutes and where tradition seems to be shunned by many, these men have – knowingly or not – taken it upon themselves to carry the torch for enthusiasts like themselves but also for people like me. 

That is a responsibility they gladly accept.

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Paul Cocks joined MaltaToday after having spent years working in newspapers with The Times...