St Paul and the Viper, together with a few remnants of paint on the adjacent capital and window jamb, are all that remain of a painted decorative scheme that is likely to have covered the entirety of the chapel originally dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury Cathedral.
Here, the drama of the Acts sequence is condensed into its core iconographical elements: saint, serpent, and fire. Gone are any signs of the shipwreck. No Roman soldiers stand beside huddled groups of sailors and prisoners. No kindly islanders carry sticks to feed the fire. The artist has divorced Paul from the geographical and narrative contexts of his twofold deliverance from death. He is stark against a bright blue background, feet bare upon a strip of green earth, as he bends towards the flames.
Paul’s monumental frame fills the composition and commands the viewer’s attention. If he stood upright, he would break through the painting-field, well past the scalloped border of golden clouds along the upper edge of the image—a reminder of his equally monumental importance to the Christian faith. We are effectively drawn into Acts 28:3, the moment the viper is driven out by the heat of the fire and fastens itself on Paul’s hand. And yet, Paul is shown to be unperturbed by the attack.
Despite not having a crowd of shocked onlookers to provide a foil for Paul’s calm demeanour, the effect of his composure is still palpable. The leaping snake only serves to emphasize the natural tranquillity the artist achieves in the masterfully-rendered corporeality of the saint. Paul is flesh-and-blood, but he maintains his faith that God will deliver him as he has done previously, and that he will indeed stand trial before Caesar in Rome (Acts 27:21–26).
Although not at the centre of the composition (see the Benjamin West and Willie Apap versions elsewhere in this exhibition), the fire serves as more than simply the catalyst for the viper’s strike and the site of its demise. Paul’s nimbus would have originally been gilded, appearing so much brighter, as though reflecting the light of the fire he leans over—drawing the viewer deeper into contemplation of the saint’s expression and the blessed assurance revealed there.
Nilgen, Ursula. 1980. ‘Thomas Becket as a Patron of the Arts’, Art History, 3.4: 357–66
28 After we had escaped, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2And the natives showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, when a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” 5He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6They waited, expecting him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery; and Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10They presented many gifts to us; and when we sailed, they put on board whatever we needed.