Arguably one of the finest of Valletta’s lesser known assets, the church of Our Lady of the Pillar formed part of the adjoining Auberge of the Langue of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre. It was first built during the early 1670s, a full century after the construction of the Auberge proper. The foundation stone was laid by Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner and its construction was financed mainly through the generosity of Raimondo de Soler and Felice Inniges de Ayerba, Bailiffs of Majorca and Caspe’ respectively. Following his death in 1691, Fra de Ayerba was buried inside the same church. Two years later, a severe earthquake that shook the Maltese Islands in January inflicted significant damage in the church construction, and the Aragonese Knights engaged Romano Carapecchia, then resident engineer of the Order, to reconstruct it. Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful financed the project, which was completed in 1718.
True to Carapecchia’s style, the central section of the three-bayed façade projects slightly outwards, while its vertical dimension is accentuated with the superimposition of two tiers of pillars of equal height. Indeed, the resultant composition looks appreciably larger than it actually is. The interior is even more striking, boasting of high sculptural qualities and adorned with a notable hoard of works of art. Of particular note is the altarpiece by Stefano Erardi, one of the leading artists in late seventeenth-century Malta. It depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to the Apostle James the Greater as he was praying by the banks of the river Ebro at Zaragoza. Popularly known as Our Lady of the Pillar, this Spanish tradition enjoys a widespread and deep-rooted devotion in the Hispanic world and constitutes the main annual religious and cultural manifestation of the capital of Aragon, Zaragoza.
Following the departure of the Order of St John from Malta in 1798, this church kept serving the spiritual needs of the neighbouring population. In 1866, Mgr Francesco Spiteri Agius instituted in this church the Istituto Catechistico for the teaching of Christian doctrine to girls. Eventually Our Lady of the Pillar Church was first made available to the Franciscan Nuns who used to run also a small school, and, in 2007, entrusted to Heritage Malta. An extensive restoration programme was carried out by the Valletta Rehabilitation Project between 1989 and 1991.