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The Baked Monks Of Malta – Floriana, Malta

The Baked Monks Of Malta

Floriana, Malta

Irene in front of the Capucine Monastery of Floriana
Irene in front of the Capucine Monastery of Floriana
My wife and I have an appointment in the afternoon with the monks of the Capucine monastery of Floriana, just some two miles south of the medieval walled city of La Valletta.

When we knock at the door it is opened by a somewhat shaky gentleman of 77, Father Azzopardi, who shows us around with aching bones. First he leads us down to a subterranean wine cellar, where in a little museum the statue of a monk stands in front of a barrel, lifting a glass of wine to his lips. This is just a reminiscence of the time when there were still many Capucines living down here, who were busy wine-growers, craftsmen, gardeners etc. Today there is but a handful of elderly people left, so that the monastery must rely heavily on the help of employees. One of the first things attracting our attention was the fact that a lot of dead leaves had fallen down into the corridors below the earth through one of the barred openings above. As the father has kindly rejected my offer to clean up a bit – “You are on holiday” – there hasn ‘t been anybody to remove the dirt so far. So admitting visitors down here means a problem for the old gentlemen: if their young helpers are not available, visitors must wait until the place looks orderly enough. Almost wistfully Father Azzopardi shows us carpenters’ tools in the museum, from an age when there were still enough brethren to do the inevitable daily chores.

The father himself is a man of the letters. Full of enthusiasm he tells us about the 25 years during which he was worming his way through the state archives of Malta, trying to decipher the old-fashioned Latin, Spanish and French of the documents in order to publish the results of his studies. Even if he didn’t understand everything, this was the peak of his life: “I was in Heaven.”

There are some memorial slabs built into the limestone walls of the corridors below the earth. Some were in the church, from which they were removed before it was completely destroyed during the bombings of World War II. One floor further down there are shelter rooms where people survived in the bowels of the earth. They remind a bit of Christian catacombs in Rome.

Statue of a Monk in one of the Alcoves
Statue of a Monk in one of the Alcoves
“But why was this place bombed during the war?” my wife Irene wants to know. “You will understand when we go up later. This is due to the strategic position of this place,” the father replies. Actually, the monastery overlooks the docks of Malta and so it was in close neighbourhood of a prominent target of the Luftwaffe. The memories of the war are still vivid in Father Azzopardi’s mind. One day part of the church broke down and the debris buried some brethren. Only one hand of a monk jutted out from the rubble. “And today we have a German pope,” he adds pensively. “Do you welcome him?” I ask. “Oh yes, a good man, very intelligent.” “A bit strict, perhaps?” I suggest. “But he is the watchdog of the church. What is a watchdog good for that lets everybody get away with everything? We are no fundamentalists. But the truth, the fundament, must be left untouched.”

Little by little we approach the rooms which are the main tourist attraction. There are several alcoves in the walls which used to be occupied by “dried monks?”, as the father puts it. They stood there in an upright position, their backs nailed to the walls. Today these alcoves are empty, just in one of them there is the replica of a dressed monk’s mummy. Old documents show that this must have looked a bit like a line of soldiers standing to attention awaiting eternity. But sooner or later their heads had tiredly sunken to their chests, or had fallen off completely and rolled beneath their feet, so that the decayed corpses had to be removed.

How were they mummified?

“We don’t know exactly. Basically they were disemboweled and dried, or exposed to heat.” Father Azzopardi directs my attention to a little poem on the wall:

“Capucine by Death are Taken,
Brother Friars dry and bake’em,
Skeletons with well-steamed crust,
A Warning stand to Living Dust.”

Crispin the Headless
Crispin the Headless
When citing these slightly morbid verses the father slaps my back exuberantly. “Were all brothers treated in this way?” I want to know. “No, only the distinguished ones,” he explains. “They were to serve as models for the living.”

We are now at the lowest point of the monastery, the crypt. Architechtonically it is a bit spoiled, as one had to insert four somewhat clumsy pillars in order to carry the additional weight from above, when the church was rebuilt after the war. The father shows me the way to a stone coffin upstairs where the last of the monks who once occupied one of the alcoves below lies in his final, somewhat more comfortable resting place. This is Crispin, the Headless, venerated almost like a saint. Again there is this enthusiastic vibration in the father’s voice, when he points out the fact to me that the saint’s skull and lower jaw have fallen off. He himself has stayed down below, his creaking bones giving him much pain. He evidently isn’t too keen on being assembled among his venerable ancestors too soon.

“I want to have him transferred down here, where the climatic conditions are more favourable. So his relics will stay with us longer,” the father’s voice explains from below.

Perhaps even longer, unfortunately, than there will be monks staying in this place.

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