Having a doctorate in a particular area does not stop you from having other interests, and neither does it stop you from pursuing a professional in-depth research related to these interests.
Art, history and popular devotions have captured Rev. Jonathan Farrugia’s interests long before he even started studying Patrology, and it was thanks to the pursuit of this private interest that he got that he achieved national recognition as a researcher.
Newspoint had a chat with him, in light of his recent win of the National Book Prize for biographical and historiographic research.
How did you get involved in this project?
Apart from being an academic, I am also a priest assigned to the parish of Senglea. In 2017 the conservation project of the miraculous effigy of Christ the Redeemer entrusted to Atelier del Restauro was launched and at that time a chest full of manuscripts was discovered in a store room of the Oratory where the statue is usually kept. These were duly sent for fumigation, and it was then that they were handed over to me to study.
As a member of the Faculty of Theology, how important is it to dabble into other areas like art and the humanities?
If we were to stretch the concept of ‘Theology’, we should be able to include even Sacred Art, which is a form of popular Theology in itself. My area of expertise is Ancient Christian Literature, but that does not mean I should not delve into other areas which link Theology to other disciplines.
Back in Rome, when I was still a student I followed courses in palaeography, epigraphy and appreciation of Sacred Art, and all these proved to be very useful in this project. After all, the techniques of scientific research in Theology are the same as in other Humanities, and with some brains they can work together quite easily.
Was the analysis of around 2,000 pages of old manuscripts always a plain sailing and enjoyable effort?
I consider texts coming from other times, especially if their content is not known, as time capsules. When I was working on those circa 2,000 pages, I was not as busy as I am now with administrative work Head of Department, therefore I had some more time on my hands which I dedicated to this research, something which, sadly, I miss very much now.
Going through those papers, trying to decipher the handwriting, building up the scenarios given by the data and trying to solve the puzzles they presented was the highlight of each day; it was literally like going through a portal to another world. And that, for me, is always enjoyable.
How did you feel about debunking the myth about the origin of the statue in question?
When these documents were misplaced (intentionally or accidentally), a myth formed regarding the presumably miraculous origin of the statute; there are similar pious myths linked to other images, such as the miraculous Crucifix found at Ta’ Ġieżu in Valletta. In our discipline, the technical term for images with such a reputation is ἀχειροποίητα, which literally translates “not made of human hands”. This naturally highlighted their miraculous qualities.
When I first hinted that I discovered who the sculptor was, I received a certain degree of opposition to making it public, because it was believed that this would damage the centuries-old devotion.
I believe that as a priest it is also part of my duty to help people mature in their faith. There is nothing wrong in venerating a statue and believing that through it, God bestows his graces; but it is outright silly to believe that an image has magical attributes and that it bestows graces because its origins are wrapped in an aura of mystery. It is far more benefitting for popular piety to know that an image has no special attributes when compared to others, but that nonetheless it offers the believer a spiritual experience to feel closer to God.
As the editor of the publication Ir-Redentur. History, Art and Cult of the Miraculous Effigy of Christ the Redeemer at Senglea, Malta, how did you liaise with the contributors?
We discussed matters mostly over the phone or social media. Major updates were sent over by email, and occasionally I organized face-to-face meetings. I liaised with Dr Sandro Debono mostly in order to understand better the context in which the statue was created, since my study dealt with the history of the statue. Then, the accidental discovery of a miniature made by Senglean artist Carlo Darmanin displaying the damages that the Redentur had at the beginning of the 20th century required a closer collaboration with the conservators, Ms Valentina Lupo and Dr Maria Grazia Zenzani, in order to determine the specific interventions made by Darmanin, including the alternations made to the pigments and materials used.
Despite their many commitments, I found their full collaboration every time I turned to them.
Why should we celebrate the research being undertaken at University?
Having academics who make a name for themselves as researchers benefits the University first and foremost, because this raises the University’s profile worldwide.
If academics are not given enough space and time to do proper research, especially due to time-consuming administrative duties, it would be, I believe, of great detriment to the University because the highest educational institution in the country would be reduced to merely a teaching institution.
Any other projects in the pipeline?
Some weeks ago, I discovered three formerly unknown maps of Cottonera by Antonio Borg, Malta’s most important cartographer of the 18th century, so I hope to publish a study about them in collaboration with other experts.
I’m currently transcribing a diary kept by an Oratorian priest in Senglea during the French blockade – the convent where he lived offers an excellent view of the goings-on in Valletta at a very safe distance. This will be another publication project by the Senglea Basilica.
More in line with my area of expertise, I am working on the translation from Greek of some homilies by Gregory of Nyssa, to have them hopefully published in a renowned series on the Fathers of the Church.