In the silent city the ancient relics of Maltese churches come to life at the hands of gifted gilders of a father and son.
Horace and Kevin Farrugia can take over a year to resurrect a beloved church saint or statue.
Their work, which involves painstaking hours upon hours of work in their tiny studio in Mdina awash with brushes, paints and some key tools that have been in use for over a hundred years.
Layer upon layer of gesso is added at millimetre on millimetre at a time to build texture to parts of the relics. Leaving the material to dry before the next layer can be added all takes a great deal of time and a huge amount of patience.
Small areas are worked on as other areas slowly come into play as they switch from gesso work to painting or gilding another small part. They then progress around the figure in what appears to the casual viewer to be rather random but they know perfectly what is required in order to complete their 12 month task.
Some of the materials are so traditional, like the rabbit skin glue that is used to bond and seal layers, rabbits have been bred for food on the island for years so some of the waste is put to practical use from what is a speciality menu item on the island.
The burnishing tools used to bring the applied fine gold leaf to its full life are themselves over 100 years old and were used by Kevin’s grandfather at the end of the 19th century in that very same compact workshop.
The tools tipped with agate are used to rub the leaf into place and apply a finish that makes the gold glow brightly on the statues or pedestals.
As the seasons come and go it does make a difference to tasks they are able to complete, as too much humidity means that burnishing work comes to a halt as the gold does not respond well and it tends to make the finish slightly dull so they switch to painting tasks.
The workshop is dim and shady, not that the Maltese sunshine and heat is too much of an issue in the thick stone built shop in the narrow lanes of Mdina. However the father and son prefer to work in this sort of low light as it suits spotting imperfections and is also more restful for the long hours of detailed work that goes on day after day as the relics progress to completion.
A church for example may commission them to refurbish a Saints image used for annual festivals which are held all over the islands so it has to be finished in time for the event next year.
It sounds a long time but the highly detailed work takes a huge amount of it and the pressure is on for Kevin and Horace to complete each one.
When they can take breaks from their relic repair and refurbishment projects they produce some highly decorated Maltese clocks. These desirable master pieces are commissioned years in advance as here too they use their amazing skills to make these highly detailed and individual works of domestic art.
The painting of such religious and precious items are carried out to a strict colour palette that people understand and recognise Our Lady in a shade of blue, St George in a shade of green. Here they have to stick to a laid down paint protocol but in some of their clocks that they can express themselves in a more unique way.
Slowly they bring back to life these highly prized religious artifacts, some that have even been damaged in the festivals themselves.
This was not the fate of this the beautiful carved statue of St George they were currently working on.
It had been on show and in use for over a 200 years since it was made but I was assured that it would be completed on time to be the highlight of the next festival in Hal-Qormi.