Paul’s Shipwreck is by the Dutch painter and calligrapher Ludolf Backhuysen I (1630–1708) who worked primarily in Amsterdam and became famous for his drawings and paintings of seascapes.
Backhuysen’s rendering of the scene is indeed striking. The crippled ship lists at an angle just to the right of centre, buffeted by whitecaps and apparently bereft of crew. The abandoned crow’s nest is pushed askew by the contrary winds, the twisted mainsail beneath it; ‘the forepart’ of the ship here appears to be quite ‘stuck fast’, ‘unmoveable’, and ‘the hinder part ... broken with the violence of the waves’ (Acts 27:41). A menacing sky dominates the entire upper half of the painting and dwarfs the struggling survivors in the foreground.
The painting captures what follows the centurion’s command to those who could swim ‘to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship’ (27:43–44). Passengers and crew have already ‘all escaped to land’ (27:44). Backhuysen’s survivors, now ashore, pull rescued cargo to higher ground. Left of centre, one man seems to be hoisting something on his shoulder; at far right, two men drag behind them a large bundle across the beach at the water’s edge.
Yet Backhuysen’s painting is also at odds with the biblical text. The narrative is clear that everything of value—the grain, the ship’s other cargo, even its tackle—had been thrown into the sea by the crew before the ship ran aground (27:18, 19, 38).
Backhuysen’s scene is a salvage operation. But according to the narrative of Acts, there is nothing left to salvage.
Broos, B. P. J. 2017. ‘Bakhuizen [Backhuysen; Bakhuisen; Bakhuyzen], Ludolf’, Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T005827
27 And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, named Julius. 2And embarking in a ship of Adramytʹtium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarʹchus, a Macedoʹnian from Thessaloniʹca. 3The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly, and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. 4And putting to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. 5And when we had sailed across the sea which is off Ciliʹcia and Pamphylʹia, we came to Myra in Lyʹcia. 6There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, and put us on board. 7We sailed slowly for a number of days, and arrived with difficulty off Cniʹdus, and as the wind did not allow us to go on, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmoʹne. 8Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Laseʹa.
9 As much time had been lost, and the voyage was already dangerous because the fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, 10saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11But the centurion paid more attention to the captain and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. 12And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to put to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, looking northeast and southeast, and winter there.
13 And when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close inshore. 14But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land; 15and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. 16And running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the boat; 17after hoisting it up, they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they should run on the Syrʹtis, they lowered the gear, and so were driven. 18As we were violently storm-tossed, they began next day to throw the cargo overboard; 19and the third day they cast out with their own hands the tackle of the ship. 20And when neither sun nor stars appeared for many a day, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.
21 As they had been long without food, Paul then came forward among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26But we shall have to run on some island.”
27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Aʹdria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28So they sounded and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they sounded again and found fifteen fathoms. 29And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let out four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come. 30And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the boat into the sea, under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat, and let it go.
33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35And when he had said this, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37(We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
39 Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to bring the ship ashore. 40So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders; then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 41But striking a shoal they ran the vessel aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was broken up by the surf. 42The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape; 43but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their purpose. He ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, 44and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all escaped to land.