This monumental altarpiece is the only one of Benjamin West’s major oil paintings to remain in situ. Flanked by double Corinthian columns, and set within a tall arched space, the painting is an imposing focal point for the chapel in which it is set, further emphasized by its palette of warm, rich colours which offset the restrained white, grey, and gold tones of the Chapel’s interior.
Some fifty figures fill the composition, caught in a flurry of activity. Close to the chapel congregants’ direct line of sight, the wrecked ship is visible through a gap in the towering rocky outcrop. The men still trudging through the water to the safety of the shore merge with those in the foreground. Carrying salvaged supplies from the ship, their movement propels the viewer’s eye upwards through a forceful diagonal to the crux of the incident.
The heavenly streams of light that often communicate God’s benediction in religious art are here replaced by the glow of the islanders’ fire which emanates from the very centre of the composition. But even in this new form, light retains its divine significance: the fire illuminates the faces of the survivors, uniting soldier, sailor, and prisoner, by God’s grace unharmed in the raging tempest.
This same light bathes the figures of the Maltese onlookers, the dark bulk of West’s rocky setting intensifying the effect. This theatrical chiaroscuro becomes a poignant reflection of the dramatic spiritual illumination that will shape the identity of a nation. Two men—each with an arm thrown back in fright or wonder at the sight before them—mirror one another at the feet of the man who is the fulcrum-figure in Malta’s history: St Paul. The apostle stands above the fire, right arm outstretched over the flames as a viper hangs from his hand. As the storm rages around them, Paul unknowingly takes his first steps as the future patron saint of Malta (Acts 28:5–6).
The dark serpent is thrown into sharp relief against the Roman centurion’s oval shield, yet the light of the fire betrays no trace of fear on the apostle’s face. West’s Paul is calm and assured, as confident in his God as he is in the heat of the flames as they prepare to devour the snake.
Serracino-Inglott, Peter. 2010. ‘“You are All Embarked”: A Short Meditation on Acts 28:1–11 in the Wake of Sundry Philosophers’, St Paul in Malta and the Shaping of a Nation’s Identity (Malta: Midsea Books), pp. 57–65
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.