More contemporary works of art of teachers’ patron saint, TIMES OF MALTA, Sunday, May 20, 2018, by Fabian Mangion

More contemporary works of art of teachers’ patron saint

Considered to be Mosta’s Don Bosco, Dun Anġ Camilleri was a man who dedicated over 50 years to the apostolate among children and young people, and undoubtedly was of inspiration to many others.

His name remains most deeply engraved in the history of Mosta’s Oratory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was inaugurated as an educational and religious complex on June 8, 1940, by Arcbishop of Malta Mauro Caruana OSB.

When the oratory came under the direction of Fr Camilleri in 1956, he continued to furnish it with the best facilities and resources for Christian and civic formation. Among other projects, he sought to embellish the chapel with a set of paintings, not only to adorn it but also to teach. He wanted an artistic and pedagogical project which, in itself, would testify to the oratory’s mission.

Gozitan painter George Apap (b.1945), who studied under Esprit Barthet and Harry Alden, clearly understood what Fr Camilleri wished and came up with a set of 10 major paintings representing episodes from the life of Jesus Christ and another set of 16 minor ones showing saints normally associated with the apostolate among children and youths. St John Baptist De la Salle, painted by Apap in 1996, is seen on the right-hand side of the main altar.

St John Baptist De La Salle [is] accompanied by a group of figures representing students and everyday life in a school environment

Olaug Vethal (1946-2007), a Norwegian artist who made Malta her home from 1988 until her death, had a very prolific career both as an artist and educator during her sojourn on the island. Faithful to her native land, she imported in Malta a style reminiscent of the French artistic movement of Les Fauves (wild beasts) as re-interpreted by the northern European movements of German Expressionism and Symbolism. Free, expressive and at times violently applied brushstrokes dominate her work. The vibrant and pure colours applied alla prima evoke the rebellious search for the freedom of artistic creation, freed from any academic constraints.

In 1996, Vethal’s professional career as an educator at De La Salle College brought her in contact with the teachings of St John Baptist De La Salle and the Brothers. Numerous were the occasions when Vethal took the plunge and portrayed the Brothers’ founder in her signature style, capturing on canvas La Salle’s teaching charisma as interpreted through a multitude of chromatic shades.

In 1998, she produced a monumental painting portraying St La Salle surrounded by the saint martyrs of Turon and St Jaime Hilario Barbal, martyred in Tarragona, Spain. Compositionally, this artwork is horizontally divided in two sections. The upper tier features a group portrait of the 10 martyrs surrounding the radiant and luminous image of the founder. The bottom section is dominated by the re-proposed figure of St John Baptist De La Salle accompanied by a group of fast-sketched figures representing students and everyday life in a school environment.

The rapid application of paint and distribution of colour characterises this work, which to this day still hangs at the college’s sixth form section, adorning the place where the artist spent the final 10 years of her life, passionately inspiring others and teaching art. Indeed, it is a vivid and colourful remembrance of Olaug Vethal, both as an artist and educator. Every generation reinvents artists in its own image. The case of Paul Camilleri Cauchi (b.1940) is an excellent example of this truism in action. Camilleri hailed from a Gozitan artistic family, a fact that became more conspicious in him as he matured, indirectly influenced by his predecessor’s artistic involvement. His zeal for art followed that of his father Agostino.

His particular idiom is built on flamboyance underlined by deep-rooted academic teaching, while being enhanced by rich hues and tones. This tonality is underscored with the same strength that stresses his virtuosity in choosing and applying colours. With the birth of the new millennium, using the marouflage technique, Camilleri managed to decorate the entire side cupolas, together with their pendentives, in the side chapels of the Cathedral of Gozo.

The first chapel on the left, as one enters the Cathedral, is dedicated to St Philip Neri, with the altarpiece painted by the Senglea-born artist Tommaso Madiona in 1852. In the cupola, Jesus, seen urging the apostles to let little children come to him (ref. Mt. 19:13-15), is accompanied by saintly personages who imitated him in his affection for children in need. Among them we see Fra Diego Bonanno, founder of St Francis’ Institute (1906) in Malta, and Dun Pawl Micallef, founder of the Oratory of Don Bosco (1934) in Gozo.

The pendentives beneath this dome, completed in 2002, depict four seated personalities with close connections to religious education and the formation of the young. Here, and rightly so, St John Baptist De La Salle finds his place together with St Francis Sales, St John Bosco and St George Preca. St La Salle, dressed in his typical black robe, appears to be inscribing the Conduite des écoles chrétiennes (The Conduct of Christian Schools – 1706).

Matthew Kassar (b.1968), a primary school teacher at De La Salle College since 1989, interprets his paintings with great sensibility. By choosing the right pieces from newspaper cuttings, he manages to intermingle painting and collage techniques to produce very particular effects. And since he uses gesso, varnish, paint and sand, these give texture to the work, and the result is like a big jigsaw puzzle, with real, sharp and vibrant subjects, some geometrical and some figurative.

In 2006, using acrylic on newspaper collage, he presented an image of St La Salle keeping an eye on the main entrance to De La Salle College. This symbolises the nexus between the spiritual and the cultural – the bond between the founder and the College. By using the main entrance as the central motif of the painting, Kassar conveys the profound roots of Lasallian spirituality in Malta. The dynamism with which the college bears on Maltese society and its educational sector is symbolised by the green colour that tinges the façade.

Patron saints are chosen as special protectors or guardians over certain areas of life such as occupations, illnesses, churches, countries, causes, and anything that is important to us. They can help us if we follow the example of that saint’s life and if we ask for their intercessory prayers to God.

There were founders of religious orders who decided to commend the fraternity they established to the patronage of St Joseph. Among these, we find St John Bosco, founder of the Salesians; St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus; St John of the Cross, founder, with St Teresa of Avila, of the Discalced Carmelites; and St John Baptist De La Salle.

So it was quite an original idea to paint these four saints on four pavilions to form part of the street decorations for St Joseph’s feast celebrated in the village of Kirkop. Using the oil-on-canvas technique, Kurt Friggieri (b.1977) painted the image of St La Salle in 2012. Friggieri, who has held personal exhibitions and taken part in collective ones, studied art at the School of Arts, Valletta, and indeed his paintings add value to festa street decorations, in both Malta and Gozo, throughout the summer months.

This is the conclusion of an article, the first part of which was published last Sunday.

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