The interior, in the form of a Latin cross, is very graceful and well-proportioned. Quentin Hughes, an expert in Maltese architecture, observes how the interior carries all Gafà’s characteristics: the serried groups of tall pilasters raised on high bases instead of the more distracting pedestals, the rich entablature and carved attic which lifts the vault higher, the vault intersected in each bay to allow adequate light from cross windows above the entablature, and the semicircular apse, which was used by the same architect at the Mdina Cathedral, which was built at the same time.
A church interior consists of various parts. The High Altar is the central feature, and the most important part of a church is known as the sanctuary. This is the space enclosing the altar and reaching down to the steps where communion is distributed. It is sometimes divided from the nave by a rail. Within the sanctuary, behind the altar, are arranged the stalls or benches for the chapter. The portion of the sanctuary reserved for this purpose is called the choir, the portion from the high altar to the communion steps is referred to as the presbytery. The rear portion of the sanctuary ends in an arched semicircular recess called the apse. The cross-arms of a church, the space on each side of the sanctuary, are known as transepts, while the area from the sanctuary to the principal door is called nave. Parallel to and divided by pillars from the nave are the aisles or lateral naves. The whole is planned on a Latin cross, the nave being its upright and the transepts its arms. The vestry or sacristy is that part of a church in which the vestments, vessels, and records, are kept, and in which the clergy and choir robe for divine service.
Photo: © Daniel Cilia
It is interesting to note that the word nave comes from the Latin navis, a ship. From the fourth century, churches had generally the form of a ship, the door representing the poop and the apse the prow. The community inside the church is symbolised by the ark of Noah and the barque of Peter voyaging through the waters of this world to the shores of eternity.
The aisles of the church contain separate chapels each individually treated yet combining to emphasise the illusion of grandeur and depth. That this was a deliberate concept by Gafà is possibly confirmed by the construction of a raised polygon above roof level over what would have been the transept crossing. Whether this was intended originally to support a saucer dome can only be a conjecture. The Cathedral has no dome, yet paradoxically one exists.
In 1739, a triumphantly successful trompe l’oeil was created by Antonino Emanuele, a Sicilian scenographic painter from Catania. It is similar to the trompe l’oeil domes of Andrea Pozzo (1642–1709) at Sant’Ignazio, Rome (1695); at the Badia dei Santi Flora e Lucilla, Arezzo (1702); at the Duomo di San Massimo, L’Aquila (1703); and the Jesuitenuniversitätskirche, Vienna (1705). The Gozo dome achieves a fantastic sense of perspective and space and is convincingly real, even to the extent of the depiction of a lifelike gecko snaking up a windowpane.
As if to mirror the theatricality of the false dome the Cathedral pavement is rich with tombstone slabs of multi-coloured marble emblazoned with armorial shields as well as family and occupational emblems, prancing putti, and twisting garlands. This decorative floor pattern, whilst not unique to Gozo and Malta, is traditional as nowhere else adding immeasurably to the lushness of the interiors where they are found. It is as if one is walking over history, yet at the same time unintentionally bruising the souls of those so commemorated with such decorative skill by stepping on them. The end result: a spatially modest interior giving an impression of muted magnificence.
As already mentioned, one hundred and fifty years after its completion, the church was raised to Cathedral status. Its size in no way detracts from its charm and simple beauty, nor from its unique position, physically in the heart of the Citadel and the town of Rabat and spiritually in that of all Gozitans whose welfare it serves with such quiet and unassuming dignity.