The Chapel of Our Lady Hodegitria

The first chapel in this area was built in 1600 by the nobleman Giovanni Maria Xara on one of his lands. It was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary Hodegitria and had a small cemetery in front of it and was properly maintained.

In this chapel there was one stone altar, and on it was a painting of Our Lady of Constantinople. It had a bronze bell, but it lacked anything else. The feast of Our Lady was celebrated on the third Sunday after Pentecost. The Bishop ordered that a door be made for it and that it be equipped with all that was necessary to enable mass to be celebrated for the farmers and villagers who lived in that locality. The heirs were instructed to continue the obligations they had inherited.

This church was somewhat neglected and completely obsolete and was about to fall into ruin and in 1658, Bishop Molina desecrated it. However in 1680, Giovanni’s nephew, Baron Stanislaw Xara, who was the master of the Rod of Mdina between 1671 and 1673, decided to finance the demolition of this tiny church, and rebuild it into a larger one by using the same stones and adding some other stones; and so was built this beautiful chapel which we see today, a little larger than the other, and a little farther from where the former church was situated.

Baron Stanislaw Xara promised and established a benefit of a patronage, attached to the old church, and pledged all his wealth in Malta and Gozo to make up for this. He undertook that if the church falls and another is built in its place with the same title and close to the same place, all the benefit and equipment will be transferred to this new church. He maintained only the condition that this church and every other one in its place should be released from the parish priest and the parish and be subject only to the Bishop of the Diocese.

This chapel was dedicated to Our Lady Hodegitria. A Hodegitria, or Virgin Hodegitria, is an iconographic depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus at her side while pointing to him as the source of salvation for humankind. In the Western Church this type of icon is sometimes called Our Lady of the Way.

In fact there were several chapels dedicated to the Hodegitria, including the chapel which was located near the Greek gate in Mdina. Over time, this devotion was lost, and today all that remains here in Malta is only this chapel that bears this title.

In 1722 Bishop Gori Mancini found the new church very well equipped with the same titular painting as before and with the lamp light in front of it. The foundation of the mass made by Baron Stanislaw Xara was being held regularly. After this church he went to see the remains of the old church which according to canon law, had to be surrounded by a stone wall with a wooden cross in the middle.

The chapel was always well maintained by the wealthy Xara family and their heirs and continued to be served by a priest for mass on Sundays and religious feasts. The bishops visited this church in pastoral visits because it was a church linked to a benefit. They always found it to be well-kept regarding the things needed for the mass and the records of the mass, as ordered by Bishop Cocco Palmieri.

In 1870, Countess Maria Antonia Sant founded the stations of the Via Sagra with the approval of the Pope, granted by decree of December 28, 1870.

In this beautiful icon, dated in 15th century Russia and located in Schuyler, NE at the St. Benedict’s Center run by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory, we see the most common way of depicting Mary in iconography. It is particularly favored in the West and has been copied many times over and incorporated into later art. It is a type of icon called the Hodegetria, who’s pattern comes from the first icon written by St. Luke the Evangelist. According to Tradition, St. Luke painted his icon of Mary and Jesus while Mary was still alive. The word Hodegetria means Directress or, quite literally, “She who shows the way.” This title is given for two reasons.

The first reason comes down to us from history. The Holy Virgin appeared to two blind men living in Constantinople and led them by the hand to the monastery of Hodegon, which had an icon like this one. When the men saw the icon, they received their sight. Since then, those that suffer eye ailments often come to the monastery and are directed by the monks there to a nearby spring where they wash their eyes. The church there is also called The Church of the Guides because many Byzantine generals would come to the Church to pray before the Hodegetria icon before going to battle. These men, who would lead the way, relied on the Mother of God, who would show the way.

The second reason is in the iconography. Mary holds Jesus up with her left arm. Her right hand points at Jesus and she gazes at us who are her children, directing us compellingly to her Son. Her mouth is depicted as smaller due to the contemplation that she is giving to her Son. Jesus usually wears a gold himation over a green or white robe, symbolizing his divinity and purity. Behind his head is the cruciform halo so common to icons of Christ. His face is shown to be older, rather than that of a child, to represent his divinity and wisdom. His left hand grasps a scroll called a rotulus, which is a symbol often used with theologians and philosophers. Because of all of these attributes, Christ is not shown to be an infant but the Logos, the eternal Word of God. His right hand gives us a blessing, showing to us that he is both Priest and Saviour.

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