Pre-Historic Malta

People arrived on Malta from Sicily about 5200 BC. This is based on Radio Carbon-14 dating of ashes from manmade fires found in caves. The first humans on Malta lived in thise caves and later built huts and small villages.

For some reason, starting about 6000 years ago the ancient Maltese started to build large stone temples. This temple building boom went on until about 4500 years ago. During that time the Maltese built fifty or so large temple complexes on Malta proper and the nearby smaller island of Gozo. Most of these buildings follow a comparable floor plan. A central corridor leads to one or more crescent shaped rooms, all of which have one or more niches carved into the walls.

As a matter of comparison this is about the same time that the different phases of Stonehenge were also erected. The temples on Malta are believed to be the oldest free standing stone structures in the world.

The most significant still existing temple complex is the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples. The Hagar Qim Temples are built on cliffs overlooking the open sea and present an impressive view of the Mediterranean Sea. Only a few hundred meters away and closer to the sea are the Mnajdra Temples. Both these building were completed around 3200 CE although they were started years earlier. Both follow the standard Maltese temple plan of a central hall and curved chambers. The enormous walls are particularly extraordinary, being built only with human power. The Mnajdra Temple has two chambers but is otherwise similar to Hagar Qim.

Most likely built around 2400 BC the underground Saflieni Hypogeum was a cultic center for the veneration of a goddess. This temple likely began as cave and when was extended. The Hypogeum features gaps into which people would drop offerings into the cave below. The Hypogeum was also a burial site. Also, the famous “Sleeping Lady” of Malta was found in the Hypogeum. The “Sleeping Lady” is a Paleolithic “Venus” as a statute carved with hugely outsized curves, denoting a female figure. The “Sleeping Lady” is now in the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the capitol of Malta.

The last of the major Maltese temples are the Tarxien Temples. These four temples are the most highly decorated of all the temples with a comprehensive twisting pattern cut in bas reliefs. The Tarxien temples were finished around 2000 BC.

These extraordinary buildings have some solar and astronomical alignments. These alignamnets focus on the position of the sun on the equinoxes and solstices. This is again similar to some of the arrangements of Stonehenge and other megalithic and Neolithic cultic sites around the world.


Artwork Analysis Belshazzars Feast by Rembrandt Van Rijn

The subject of the 1635 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast” by Rembrandt van Rijn comes from the fifth chapter of the biblical Book of Daniel. They story has traditionally been interpreted as a warning against gluttony and conspicuous consumption.

The Bible portrays Belshazzar as drinking in front of “a thousand of his lords.” (Daniel 5:1) Rembrandt looks back at his older style of painting with throngs of smaller people filling a vast space to show this spacious and yawning hall. But he then isolates a small number of figures, including the Belshazzar himself and moves them oppressively close to the edge of the frames of the scene. This enhances the overpowering feeling of cloying closeness. There is no way out of this painting or this party.

“Belshazzar’s Feast” is one of Rembrandt’s most ostentatious paintings in showing the passion of the subjects. This is most clearly shown in the continence of Belshazzar; lit from within, almost glowing and pop eyed. Further Rembrandt shows us that all things are perishable. Nothing lasts: precious metals corrode and rust, the appetites fade with age, empires rise and then fall in a natural cycle. Working with a dark brown background against which the textures of the foreground objects the surge of the wine, the richly drawn plates figs and grapes, the highly decorated cloth are all painted with feeling and nearly cloying richness. Rembrandt works with dense tawny orange, sickly yellow and dead flat white on the King’s clothes. While the King’s turban fairly glitters with an oddly rich and reflective pearl white.

The onyx, rubles, and other valuable stones that Belshazzar wears are literally standing out from the the rest of the painting, rendered in a rich three dimensional look. The crux of the painting is Belshazzar’s gesture of horror, as if pushing away the horrifying vision he see, which is the opposite of Daniel’s arm which is ironically raised in a gesture of welcome. These two actions form a quadrilateral along with the king’s right hand sitting on a gold dish, the king’s richly appointed turban, his warding left hand and the crimson red dress and out reaching hand of the slave girl.

Daniel is transfixed by a beam of golden light. While coming from a cloud is the prophecy of Belshazzar’s downfall and death. Written in Hebrew letter that emerge as columns, not lines. The writing is not complete. Yet the king’s fate is sealed as he dies that same night that Daniel has interpreted for the king his vision. Just as the letters emerge and then fade so it is with all worldly things, that appear, wax and then wane just as rapidly.