Mosta Dome: From A Humble Church To Malta's Largest Unsupported Basilica
by Karl Azzopardi
The Mosta Dome (addressed locally as ir-Rotunda tal-Mosta) is known worldwide for being one of the largest unsupported domes on the planet — a great feat considering the microscopic size of our island. However, before becoming one of the core structures that shaped the marvellous history of Mosta, another modest-sized church much like other cities on the island stood in its place.
It took almost 28 years for the Mosta Dome church to be built in place of the old one due to the resistance that the architect faced with his designs and the exuberant sum of money that was required to build it. In this article, we will be exploring the steps that led to the magnificent dome that stands in the heart of Mosta today and some events that followed after its construction.
Designing The Mosta Dome
The full title of the Mosta Dome is the Sanctuary Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady but it was not until recently that it was reclassified to the status of basilica. So, let's go back a couple of centuries, back to the 1830s, when Maltese architect Grognet de Vassé thought up the design for it.
As mentioned above, before the Mosta Dome, the city already had a church which was commonly known as Ta' Ziri. It was built around 1614 in the Renaissance style to the designs of Tommaso Dingli. This church served as Mosta's main place of worship until it couldn't accommodate the city's growing population in the early 1800s. So, an organising committee was set up to build a new larger church and a call for proposals was issued. Giorgio Grognet de Vassé was one of the architects who submitted his idea for the new church, and his design, heavily influenced by the neoclassical style of the Pantheon in Rome, won the race.
One quick look at the Mosta Dome church immediately reveals the inspiration behind Grognet de Vassé's design, most notably the portico supported by six Ionic columns and, of course, the unsupported dome structure itself. Coincidentally, the parish priest at the time, Dun Felic Calleja (who was also part of the organising committee for the new church project) had held his first mass in the Pantheon while studying in Rome. So, unsurprisingly, he was all over Grognet de Vassé's proposal.
Grognet de Vassé's proposal was the most practical choice too, as Emanuel Benjamin Vella points out in his book 'Storja tal-Mosta bil-Knisja Taghha' ('Mosta's History and its Church'). The Mosta Dome was to be built on the same site as Ta' Ziri church, so the committee had to find a way for the old church to still function while construction took place. The columnless dome structure seemed like the perfect solution and since the Ta' Ziri church was to remain untouched throughout construction, the burial sites beneath it didn't have to be moved either. Additionally, the lack of columns allowed for a larger congregation of people and cost less than constructing the more common Latin cross churches on the island.
However, despite all these factors working in his favour, Grognet de Vassé still faced some backlash as some parishioners believed that modelling a Catholic church on the image of an ex-pagan Roman temple was quite the sacrilege. Among the opposition was the Bishop of Malta at the time, Mgr Francesco Saverio Caruana, and the committee needed the Maltese Curia's approval to proceed with construction. Thankfully, after much convincing, in July 1833 Mgr Caruana agreed to its development — not that he had much choice after all! The first stone of the Mosta Dome church had already been laid in May of that same year!
Funding The Most Dome
This tension with the local Curia continued in the following years of construction. When Grognet de Vassé and the organising committee were planning the finances for the project they didn't quite estimate how pricy it would be to build such a monumental structure. So, among other initiatives, the funding committee had to ask the Maltese Curia for permission to use the parish's legates for funding.
Considering the Curia's disagreements with the Mosta Dome's design, the funding committee cunningly contacted the Holy See directly to speak to the Maltese Curia in their name and add some much-needed pressure. And it worked! The Curia ended up funding 3,000 skudi annually for the next 15 years.
Another funding initiative included a lottery among the Mostin (people from Mosta) which didn't quite go to plan. When the funding committee announced the lottery with three hefty sums for the lucky winners, they hoped to sell around 5,000 tickets. However, only half of them were sold, so they decided to cancel the lottery but kept the money from the sold tickets as compensation!
The most notable financial contribution to building Mosta Dome church, was by none other than Dun Felic Calleja whose unfortunate passing (just a month before the foundation stone was laid) kickstarted the whole project. His dedication towards the Mosta Dome reached beyond the grave as he had signed off all his earnings and royalties to be used in the project which amounted to around 26,000 scudi in total.
In the end, the total cost of the project ended up totalling a whooping 259,400 scudi!
Building The Mosta Dome
The Mosta Dome church website states that the outside diameter of the dome is 56.2 metres while the inside diameter is 39.6 metres and the internal height is 54.7 metres. Its size is an ambitious project even with today's mechanical advancements, so one can imagine why it took almost 28 years to be built.
A rope pulley was placed near the western bell tower and four mules were used to lift the stone blocks to their respective tier. It is estimated that between 30 to 50 workers were working on the project at a time, though this all depended on the availability of funds. The parishioners themselves also helped in its construction on Sundays and public holidays.
With funds and manpower being so sparse it is almost a miracle that the Mosta Dome was completed to the calibre of Grogent's ambitious design by the beginning of 1860. Unfortunately, Grogent only got to bask in its glory for two years before passing away. He was buried in the church itself as per his request at the start of the project — a bust was later constructed over his tomb in his name.
The Mosta Dome After Completion
Not only was the Mosta Dome built to perfection, but it also survived the wars that followed soon after, even when bombs were dropped directly above it. On 9 April 1942, the German airforce dropped three bombs on the Mosta Dome where some 300 people had congregated for evening mass. Two of the bombs deflected without exploding while one of them pierced right through the dome and miraculously didn't explode either. This event has been dubbed The Bomb Miracle and a replica of the bomb can be found at the back of the church — the original bomb was diffused and dumped into the sea.
Some aren't convinced that this was an act of divine intervention that saved the dome that day. Rather they speculate that the bombs may not have even been filled with explosives at all — an act of rebellion by anti-Nazi workers to secretly sabotage their oppressors.
Another event that isn't as dramatic or well-known but still talked about among locals to this day came as a result of a bet in May of 1983. Carmelo Aquilina, a 27-year-old taxi driver from Hamrun, was challenged to drive his Mercedes up the churchyard and straight into the church. After dropping off some passengers at the square, he scaled the Mosta Dome stairs and drove straight into the main door, tearing it from the hinges and stopping just before hitting the altar. As his final fandango before sitting in jail for 3 months, he got out of the car, climbed on top of the altar table and started plucking the petals from the flowers there. People who knew Carmelo say that the car is still being used by his son as a taxi today!
In other more recent news, in July 2018, the Mosta Dome was decreed as a minor basilica by Pope Francis following the parish's request submitted in 2015.