Missing Qrendi religious artworks prompt police investigation

Parliamentary secretary files police complaint over residents’ allegations of missing artworks from Qrendi church during restoration works

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy in Qrendi
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy in Qrendi

The police are investigating allegations of theft of religious art from Qrendi’s Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy, after an exhibition revealed missing pieces from an original inventory.

The allegations had been an open secret among a community of worshippers at the church and art connoisseurs, but the matter reached a head after Qrendi MP and parliamentary secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli was petitioned to take action.

In a complaint to the police seen by MaltaToday, Farrugia Portelli says that a number of the church’s centuries-old votive offerings and artworks – listed in an inventory from 2002 for a university dissertation – had gone missing since the artworks were moved elsewhere pending a restoration of the church’s interior.

“If there are any paintings that are missing, it merits an investigation,” Farrugia Portelli told the police, who specifically said the date of its restoration under the auspices of the heritage NGO Din l-Art Helwa in 2009, and the tenure of former Qrendi chaplain Fr Ray Toledo could be a starting point for investigators.

“Fr Toledo had authorised the removal of the paintings at the time of the restoration,” Farrugia Portelli said, and referred to a public message posted on her own Facebook wall by the artist Chris Ebejer.

Farrugia Portelli told police that Ebejer suggested that Toledo took the paintings to a household for safekeeping, and asked police to verify the claim.

In his own Facebook post, Ebejer – a sculptor and religious artist – said that “it is Fr Toledo who can testify as to who were the people who dismantled the artwork, when it was passed on to Din l-Art Helwa, whose interventions must be said were indeed minimal if not insignificant… many are those Qrendi residents who have been talking about this incident for years, and who have now spoken to Julia.”

On his part, Fr Ray Toledo disputed the allegations when spoken to by MaltaToday, saying that at the time of his chaplaincy no restoration had taken place, and that he had carried out an inventory of the artworks but any restoration did not take place in his time.

MaltaToday has been informed that a police unit focusing on cultural property is handling the investigation.

“I’m sticking my neck out because nobody wants to talk about it,” Farrugia Portelli told MaltaToday about the complaint she filed.

The Sanctuary is currently hosting an exhibition of its ex-voto artworks, many of them hailing from the 17th century. The Sanctuary is now due for restoration by the government’s restoration unit in 2019, with a view for its reopening in 2020.

The Sanctuary was passed under deed of trust to Din l-Art Helwa in 2009. Built between 1650 and 1658, the Baroque chapel is attributed to the architect Mederico Blondel. Although the actual building goes back to the 13th century, it had been deconsecrated in 1575 by Bishop Dusina until the new church was built.

With its impressive cupola and large interior, the Sanctuary was adorned with various thanksgiving artworks and an altar adorned with exquisite stone carvings: the earliest artwork, dating back to the early 17th century, depicts a fleet of galleys of the Order and from the Kingdom of Sicily trying to enter harbour to escape a storm.

One of the main benefactors of this church was Bailiff Fra Philipp-Wolfgang von Guttenberg, a Knight of the Order of St John, who donated the paintings of St Mary Magdalene attributed to the Mattia Preti school, and that of the Crucifixion, attributed to Suor Maria de Domenicis, commissioned in 1690.

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