The Marble Works Restoration Project in the Church

maltese english

Through funds obtained from the Cottonera Projects and Initiatives Fund of the Cottonera Foundation, an intensive restoration was carried out on three marble works located in the Kalkara Parish Church. These are: the baptismal font; work of the marmist Mariano Russo and which was placed in the old Church in 1898, the holy water font which like the baptismal font is located at the entrance of the Church, and the the main altar; work of the marmist Armando Battelli in 1953 which was donated by the Mintoff family to the present Church.

On August 23rd 1884 Fortunato Gulia requested to donate a piece of land on which to build a new church in Kalkara. This request was approved by the Archdiocese of Malta and Can. Rev. Joseph Azzopardi, together with an ad hoc committee, was delegated to accomplish this project. The design of the church, in the shape of a Latin cross, was created by architect Guglielmo Attard. The first stone was blessed on June 22nd 1890 whilst construction work was completed in 1895, funded through collections and several benefactors’ donations. Kalkara became an independent Parish on December 10th 1897 and the church was blessed on January 8th 1898 when the first Parish Priest Fr Joseph Ciangura was installed.

All marble works were done in 1897, including the baptismal font and entrance holy water font, which were placed near the main door. Their artist was the marble-cutter Mariano Russo. The church was consecrated on January 30th 1921 and unfortunately was completely destroyed during World War II on April 10th 1942. 

The marble baptismal font is believed to have had a sculptural wooden lid, destroyed by enemy attack. Several shallow holes are observed, almost equally spaced from each other on the upper rim of the ‘lavabo’. These may have been possible resting slots for a wooden upper cover as possibly found on other similar baptismal fonts.

The baptismal font is made of white/grey Carrara marble and is carved very intricately. As a shape, it seems to be very cubical, with an octagonal cross-section throughout. The sides of the octagonal are not equal lengths and the shorter sides of the basin are curved inwards.

The picture on the left is an example of a wooden lid found in the Mdina Cathedral similar to that which was part of the Kalkara baptismal font.

The upper edge of the basin as well as the upper edge of the narrower pedestal is carved in a rounded linear cornice. The top of the baptismal font has been covered with a wooden cover, but possibly the font was originally a pyramidal shaped (sculptural) wooden top, similarly to those in other churches.

The front panel of the central pilaster of the baptismal font is inscribed with an inscription which states: ‘EX MUNIFICENTIA/ 1 PP. CAN. CANT. MERCIECA/ PROTRII APOSTOLICI/ AS INSTAR PARTIUM VICARII GENERALIS /ANNO DPI 1898’.

The entrance holy water font is composed of various sculptural coloured marbles. Starting from the base, one may observe a black marble pedestal with an octagonal cross-section and a round decorative upper cornice. The Column is octagonal in section and is clad with White Carrara marble, with each alternate flat surface decorated with a beveled edged green marble slab. Above this one may observe a round (orange/ yellow) marble pedestal, surmounted with a pink/beige marble wide circular basin. Raised on a central round pedestal within the latter, stands a high figure of a winged angel. The angel has long curly hair, flowing drapery and large long wings. The hands are held together in prayer over the angel’s heart.

The marble fonts are each produced from various blocks of marble. The baptismal font is produced in a grey/white Carrara marble while the entrance holy water font is produced with various coloured marbles. The surface finish, of both fonts, is very smooth. These various elements composing these fonts would have been roughly hewn out of marble blocks coming from the quarry and then further refined using hand drills, as well as chisels and Hammer. The surfaces are generally further refined with files, and polishing abrasive powders. The inscription on the baptismal font would have been engraved within the surface of the marble and painted in with black paint. The drapery of the angel surmounting the entrance holy water font is sculpted so that it appears to be light and weightless. Tool marks are still visible, especially on the back of the baptismal font (indicating that this font was probably inserted within a stone niche, in its original location within the destroyed old church. Over the marble fonts there is a glossy shine, which might have been produced by the highly worked surface and possibly by application of a wax finish.

The fonts seem to have a heavy deposit of dust and dirt on their surface. The marble surface has darkened in time due to dirt, possible wax applications and continuous touching by passers-by. Dust is primarily found on the most horizontal areas where such easily accumulates. This together with wax and humidity amalgamates to form a dark appearance on the surface hindering the original patina of the fonts.

Soot on the fonts is also found possibly due to candle smoke. The back part of the fonts appears to be dirtier than the front part. Apart from general dust and dirt on the surface, there are dark deposits pronounced in areas where undercutting is executed.

There is a crack and various scratches on the throughout these fonts, possibly caused by the destruction of the Old Parish Church during World War II.

The baptismal font had largish areas which are chipped or lost, possibly due to shrapnel splinters which hit it. Many of these seem to have been repaired in the past with a course whitish mortar (possibly white cement). Due to them being much courser then the original surface, these area retain much more dust deposits, looking quite unsightly.

The entrance holy water font has a very thick calcareous crust within its basin, possibly cause by deposition of such calcareous materials throughout time.

The statue seems to have eroded in various areas, possibly caused by the deposition of soluble salts within its pores. The wet and drying cycles would have caused the crystallization- liquid cycles of these salts which in turn crack up the pores causing powdering and erosion.

The red marble short pedestal for the basin, ins eroded along its natural veins but is cracked up into several pieces towards the back.

The conservators Ingrid Ross and James Licari from Heritage ResCo

Intervention Undertaken

The work mainly involved the cleaning, treatment and presentation of the fonts within the conservation ethics of minimal intervention. The cleaning started from the superficial cleaning of surface deposits. Dust and dirt on the surface are a substrate for micro-organisms to feed on. The removal of aged past protective layers followed. These layers had aged and were not serving their function as protective layers. The cleaning of the fonts from deposits trapped within or beneath these layers was undertaken, and there was an attempt at reducing the amount of surface staining on the marble. Most of these stains were removed, however some metal oxide staining had seeped deep into the pores of the marble in the past and it was impossible to remove the latter staining completely.

Cleaning and restoration of the marble baptismal font
  • Documentation – Written and photographic documentation.
  • Cleaning tests were undertaken using mechanical methods. (and chemical methods) to establish the most efficient but least invasive method.
  • The upper surfaces of the stone were cleaned and the aged past intervention materials were removed, while respecting the naturally formed patina of the stone, which protects it. Some reconstructions within he baptismal font were left, as it would have proved to be more damaging to remove them. Most thick surface deposits were removed with sharp scalpel blades. Further cleaning was undertaken chemically, by means of a poultice application
  • The calcareous crusts within the font basins were reduced by mechanical cleaning with scalpel blades and chemical cleaning assisted in softening these crusts.
  • Filling any cracks within the fonts with a compatible mortar mix.
  • Major lost features were reconstructed, where possible, using conservation grade materials.
  • Part of a sculptural element towards the back part of the upper cornice if the baptismal font, was cut out an replaced by an experienced ‘Marmist’.
  • Other surface losses were reconstructed with mortar mixes built upon the damaged and deteriorated stone in gradual layers (where approved by the conservator-restorer).
  • The red marble basin of the holy water font was consolidated and given a holistic protective layer prior to and large losses being filled in with an appropriate coloured mortar.
  • The cleaning of the marble inscriptions within the baptismal font was also undertaken and the missing letters were re-painting in.
  • The final report was compiled.

On Thursday 15th July 2021, the second day of the holy triduum of the titular feast of Saint Joseph, after the 18:00 Mass at the Parish Church of Saint Joseph in Kalkara, the inauguration of the Restoration Project on marble works of art took place. The project was inaugurated by the Hon. Glenn Bedingfield Chairperson of the Cottonera Foundation. This project was carried out by the Assoċjazzjoni Wirt il-Kalkara, with the cooperation of Kalkara Parish and through funding from the Cottonera Projects & Initiatives Fund of the Cottonera Foundation.