The First Church of Valetta – The Church of Our Lady of Victory

The First Church of Valetta – The Church of Our Lady of Victory

Saved through restoration by Din l-Art Ħelwa (the Voluntary National Trust of Malta)

When entering Valletta make sure you visit the Church of Our Lady of Victory on Castille Square and admire its richly painted ceiling and altars. This first church and first building of Valletta was dedicated by the Order of St John to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin which is celebrated on 8 September every year. Financed personally by Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, it was built in thanksgiving for the victory over the invading Ottoman fleet. The Great Siege of Malta lasted five months and ended on the eve of 8 September 1565. The importance of the date doubled, when, during WW2, the Italian fleet surrendered outside Grand Harbour on 8 September 1943.

The exterior of the Church of Our Lady of Victory

Construction began in 1566 on a site close to where the first stone of the city was allegedly laid. It is said that the valiant Grand Master de Valette, (1557 – 1558) hero of the Great Siege, would spend many hours in prayer here during the building of Valletta. He wished to be buried in his church, but his wish was only partially fulfilled. At his death on 22 August 1568, he became the first person to be buried in the church and in the city which he founded. However, his remains were moved to the Co-Cathedral of St John, the new Conventual church of the Order when this was completed. Our Lady of Victory then served as the Knights’ Parish, and was also dedicated to St Anthony the Abbot, Protector of Animals, whose power was said to keep evil away. The traditional blessing of animals continued to take place on 17 January in front of the church till well after WW2. Original photos of this annual event are displayed in the basement where a small cinema shows a documentary about the development of the church through the ages.

The church’s nave 

The Order continued to embellish the church over the years. In 1716 Grand Master Ramon Perellos (1697 – 1720) commissioned Maltese artist Alessio Erardi to decorate the vaulted ceiling with scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. The paintings are a unique historic, artistic, and spiritual legacy of Malta’s history. The ceiling is also a testimony to those who embellished the church, bearing the coats of arms of several grand masters and benefactors. Over the main altar, the flag of the Order is depicted, while an archangel holds the Holy Cross and the motto, ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ being the symbols the Knights always carried into battle. (‘In the name of this sign we conquer’). A cherub is seen holding a sword and dagger, representing the personal arms of Grand Master de Valette. On the night of 7 April, 1942, the church was badly shaken by the bomb that destroyed the neighbouring Opera House. The blast had an impact on the vaulted ceiling but miraculously this did not collapse and the paintings survived.

Painting on the interior of the church 

Our Lady of Victory Church became government property when the Order was banished on the arrival of the French in 1798. The bomb blast of 1942 had left the roof open to water which created much damage to the paintings and to the whole church. In 2000 Din l-Art Ħelwa, National Trust of Malta, appealed to the government to be allowed to manage and restore this national historical icon, and finally, after 15 years of lobbying, the church was entrusted to the organisation for its restoration and management, a programme that continues to this day. The church was suffering from centuries of neglect, but its many people from the community remained devoted to the church and helped keep it alive. There are many devotions to Our Lady of Victory, for solutions to impossible cases, to St Anne for motherhood, to the Infant Jesus of Prague, for infertility and for the unborn child, St Anthony of Padua, finder of lost things, St Philip Neri for heart disease and St Liborius, Bishop of Paderborn, for gallstones!

The basement of the church with an exhibition 

After raising funds for professional conservation, and after many scientific and technical studies, Din l-Art Ħelwa has ensured that the church of Our Lady of Victory, its many spiritual devotions, and its magnificent baroque ceiling and its monumental art, were saved and could be enjoyed once more. Its size and perfect acoustics make the church very popular for religious ceremonies, weddings, concerts and educational events.

For opening hours please inquire at All donations are dedicated by Din l-Art Ħelwa to the ongoing maintenance of the church. Din l-Art Ħelwa is a voluntary heritage organisation that has saved numerous historic sites around Malta and Gozo. If you want to become a Heritage Guardian, you can assist Din l-Art Ħelwa by joining as a volunteer or simply by leaving a donation through the website on www//dinlartĦ We look forward to welcoming you. Please note Covid 19 precautionary regulations are adhered to.

Simone Mizzi, Valetta, Malta 2021

Images by Rene Rossignaud

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