Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta is not among the more famous events of his life; in truth, it is a rare subject in the history of art. So why might it have been chosen for depiction in these three very different locations, across a period of some eight centuries? In each case, their wider context holds the key.
Benjamin West’s large-scale altarpiece dominates the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul in the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, the chapel naval veterans were once expected to attend every day. The subject of the shipwreck would remind the seamen of their own past preservation, while the kindness shown to the castaways by the islanders (Acts 28:2) would elicit gratitude from the veterans for the comfortable retirement—the ‘safe haven’—their government afforded them.
Similar sentiments might be felt by Maltese viewers of the scene; the gregale storms associated with the biblical event remain a common enough occurrence in Maltese waters. Indeed, the Maltese context proves itself to be the exception to the rule where the rarity of this iconography is concerned; Paul, the patron saint of Malta, is represented repeatedly throughout the visual tradition of the island. Long before the Maltese Islands adopted red and white as their national colours in the late Middle Ages, imagery associated with Acts 27 and 28 was turned to in order to give iconic representation to Malta and her sister island, Gozo. The subject became so interwoven with the Maltese artistic landscape that the Paul of this episode has been dubbed ‘Malta’s Paul’ (Serracino Inglott 2009: 11–14). Willie Apap’s oil painting forms part of this storied tradition.
It is the wall painting in St Anselm’s Chapel, Canterbury, that poses the most intriguing query. Does a painting still contribute to Maltese identity if the Maltese narrative context has been removed from it? Is Paul still the embodiment of euntes docete, ‘go and teach’ (Matthew 28:19), when artistically disconnected from the people he witnesses to?
If we accept the proposition that the Canterbury painting is not, in fact, the sole surviving scene of a homogenous narrative cycle (Nilgen 1980: 363), the isolation of the subject becomes even more conspicuous. In its condensed format, the image then serves as an entry point, an invitation to meditate upon the whole biblical account from storm to fire. The association of the miracle with the invulnerability of those who dutifully follow Christ (Luke 10:19) would not have been lost on those going about their devotions in the chapel. Nor can Paul’s demonstration of virtue before those who thought him an evildoer (Acts 28:4) be separated from Archbishop Thomas Becket’s own very public experience of salvation from spiritual shipwreck. Although a precise date for the fresco is unknown, it has been argued that it probably coincided with Becket’s radical change of conduct and lifestyle upon being elected Archbishop of Canterbury (Nilgen 1980: 366; Martin 2006: 311).
From shipwreck, to snake bite, to miraculous healing, Acts 28 offers compelling testimony of divinely-powered triumph over certain death. As vulnerability and power, fear and faith, jostle throughout this biblical episode, it is perhaps appropriate that each of these artworks presents strong contrasts.
Clinging to his body as though wet, the expertly-executed folds and hems of Paul’s mantle in the Canterbury fresco cascade over him in energetic curves, while his face is focused and serene.
West contrasts a looming landscape and shadowy voids with glowing light to dramatize a revelatory epiphany, and the faith it awakens.
Apap’s composition is a study in contrasts and balance. He foregoes the individualization of the subsidiary figures filling the horizontal composition; instead of portraying unique characters, Apap renders them a nameless crowd. This psychological softening, paired with a similar suppression of tonal contrasts, serves to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the central action taking place. Paul is in sharp focus, the solidity of the semi-clothed figure to the right providing an impressive counterbalance to the forcefulness of the saint’s movement.
And yet, Paul’s expression doesn’t seem to match the confidence of his stance. Gone is the benign calm of West’s oil painting and the Canterbury Paul. Here his gaze is turbulent, as though his thoughts are fixed on something beyond the understanding of the onlooker. Perhaps towards Rome and Caesar, or further still past the events of the final chapter in the Acts of the Apostles.
Martin, Francis (ed.). 2006. Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT 5 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), pp. 310–13
Nilgen, Ursula. 1980. ‘Thomas Becket as a Patron of the Arts’, Art History, 3.4: 357–66
Schembri-Bonaci, Giuseppe. 2009. Apap, Cremona, and St Paul: An Essay on the Pauline Iconography of Willie Apap and Emvin Cremona (Malta: Horizons)
Serracino Inglott, Peter. 2009. ‘Malta’s Paul’, Salve Pater Paule: A Collection of Essays and an Exhibition Catalogue of Pauline Art (Malta: Wignacourt Collegiate Museum), pp. 11–14
Sparks, Esther. 1971. ‘“St. Paul Shaking off the Viper”: An Early Romantic Series by Benjamin West’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 6: 59–65
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.