Maltese-born artist-educator Joseph Calleja (1924 – 2018) worked in sculpture, kinetics, painting, printmaking, and photography after he moved to Canada in 1958. He emigrated from Malta after studying at the Malta School of Art, Valletta (1945-47), The Ruskin School of Drawing, and Fine Art in Oxford (1948-49), and the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Fine Art in London (1955-58).
Joseph Calleja’s sculptures and paintings can be found in major art collections in Ontario and Quebec, as well as in Valletta. However, until 1996, Calleja, the artist, was relatively unknown to his Maltese compatriots, except for his old friends from the Modern Art Group, such as Antoine Camilleri and Frank Portelli, with whom he maintained close contact. As a Maltese-Canadian visual artist, he is one of the few Maltese artists who achieved an international reputation in the pre-digital age.
In 1996 and 2019, two major retrospective exhibitions were held on the works of art of Joseph Calleja. The first was organized by the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the second was organized by the Bank of Valletta. On the latter occasion, Calleja donated his series of 15 paintings, “The Sacrifice of the Lambs,” to the Archdiocese of Malta.
The Sacrifice of the Lambs: These paintings were initially inspired by the stone altars in the Hagar Qim temple. It is believed that small animals, like lambs, were offered as ritual sacrifices on these altars. This led to the biblical reference of Abraham offering his son, Isaac, and later God offering Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world: “Agnus Dei Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi.”
From then on, human sacrifice in present-day conflicts became a daily occurrence. The paintings transitioned from depicting lambs to human offerings during the Sri Lankan War around 1990. Starting in the mid-1980s, the paintings were executed in oil on paper and masonite, over several years, until 2000. This is why no name or date is provided for the individual paintings. The artist’s expressionist brushwork and strong colors complement the violent energy of physical sacrifice, reflecting the tragic yet spiritually redemptive theme of the paintings.