As well as the above ground temples in Malta, several underground so-called ‘burial grounds’ have been discovered, carefully carved to imitate above ground temples and decorated with spirals and dots. The best preserved site is known as the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, of which archaeologist Donald Trump said
“This must be the most remarkable monument in the Mediterranean, in Europe, perhaps in the world, but we remain almost totally ignorant of what went on inside it, or the other temples.”
The Hypogeum was carved from rock to form three layers of chambers below a temple standing above ground. It is unique, as the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. Parts of it are carved in relief to imitate the great stones of the above-ground temples; other areas are more naturally shaped. All of this was carved using only chunks of obsidian from Italy and antler horns.
Some of the original paintings are known to have faded and disappeared – there was a painting of a bull once, and a hand shape. Now the only decoration is in the Oracle Room, where a great ‘Tree of Life’ pattern spans the ceiling. Also in this room is the Oracle Hole, where the low pitch of a male voice is greatly magnified and will echo around the whole temple. The acoustics have been studied extensively by international scientists and found to match the resonance found in other ancient chambers around the world.
But I don’t want to tell you about the details – you can read them through the links below, or by looking up ‘Hal-Salflieni Hypogeum’ on Google.
In 1999 I was lucky enough to be given permission to actually paint down in the Hypogeum while it was closed to the public for renovations. It was a truly extraordinary experience. I, and six female artist friends, were working towards an exhibition called ‘Seven Temples, Seven Women’ and the Hypogeum was one of the sites we were given access to. For six months we could go down there between the workmen’s visits. They were fitting safety rails, lights, and a walkway, and technicians were trying to find ways stabilise the humidity.
We could move the lights around if we wanted to, sit wherever we liked, and just feel the place seep into our bones. Scientists tell us that the Hypogeum was an elaborate burial chamber, but I don’t think so. When I focus on painting everything else around me fades away and I find that time and thoughts just disappear. I tend to pick up impressions and have visions when I am in that state. Catacombs and mausoleums make me feel uneasy, I find graveyards aren’t so bad as they have a sense of nature and balance. The Hypogeum didn’t feel like that at all though. I didn’t pick up anything to do with death – it was more like fires and celebrations. It felt like the great cycles of birth, life, death and afterlife were all joined in a huge ring of natural progression. There was nothing to fear, nothing to interfere with, but honouring and marking the movement and the
Sitting down there for any length of time was uncomfortable because the humidity was 100% and everything – including us – just became waterlogged. My paints would not dry at all, so I had to carefully balance my paintings up the stairs one by one to lay them on the floor.
I later did an exhibition of the paintings I created in the Hypogeum, and at the moment I am working on another collection, based on the sketches and impressions I gathered in my time down there. This time I am working on a collection that will form an installation, surrounding visitors with an atmospheric experience of the Hypogeum. It won’t be a copy of the actual place at all; more a way of sharing my experience of it.
To see more of my temple paintings please go to www.thewisestonesofmalta.weebly.com
For more details and information about the temples please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypogeum_of_%C4%A6al-Saflieni
You can book tickets through
But book as early as you can – only 60 people are allowed to visit every day and tickets are booked up months ahead.