As a Maltese artist, Willie Apap would have been intimately familiar with imagery of Acts 27 and 28. Centuries’ worth of Maltese literature, art, and cultural tradition have been devoted to celebrating Paul’s arrival on the islands, and the widespread conversion of faith that followed. In the words of former Superintendent of Cultural Heritage Anthony Pace, ‘images of Paul are, for Malta, as powerful as our national colours’ (Azzopardi & Pace 2010: 5).
Apap’s contribution to the history of Pauline art was painted in 1960 for the nineteenth centenary of St Paul’s shipwreck. The island’s celebration of this anniversary, and the artist’s desire to honour it, speak volumes about the biblical event’s status as cultural landmark for the people of Malta. Decades later, it was chosen as a gift to be presented to Pope John Paul II during his first pastoral visit to the island in May 1990.
Despite the number of figures in the painting, and the fact that a kneeling man occupies the true centre of the composition, Paul nevertheless dominates. With a palette verging on the monochromatic, Paul’s resolute stance and white robes—which seem to glow in the light of the fire—mark him as the main protagonist of Apap’s narrative. The blaze at Paul’s feet is matched by the suffusion of the sky behind his head with light. The natural halo would have been a clear signal to the Maltese viewer: this is your patron saint.
Although the pictorial tension weakens slightly in the far left of the image, where the darkened soldiers seem inattentive, an inward-moving force unifies the composition and brings the central action into focus. The snake isn’t depicted mid-strike, or dangling from the apostle’s hand; instead, Paul is captured in the act of flinging the viper into the fire, the impact of the purposeful motion intensified by the movement of his robes. Apap’s figures appear reminiscent of the work of El Greco (Fiorentino & Grasso 1993: 27–29), their elongated bodies almost a visual parallel to the falling form of the serpent which causes them such physical alarm.
By choosing to paint this mid-air moment, Apap invites the viewer to move past a general familiarity with the theme, and to contemplate instead the precise moment at which the action took place—the moment that heralded the radical transformation of the artist’s (and the original viewers’) own culture.
Azzopardi, John, and Anthony Pace. 2010. ‘St Paul in Malta and the Shaping of a Nation’s Identity: Introduction’, St Paul in Malta and the Shaping of a Nation’s Identity (Malta: Midsea Books), pp. 1–20
Fiorentino, Emmanuel, and Louis A. Grasso. 1993. Willie Apap (Malta: Carmelo Zammit la Rosa)
Pace, Anthony. 2010. ‘Acts 27 and 28 in the Shaping of a Nation’s Identity: A Convergence of Literary Form, Art, Architecture, and Landscape’, St Paul in Malta and the Shaping of a Nation’s Identity (Malta: Midsea Books), pp. 35–55
Schembri-Bonaci, Giuseppe. 2009. Apap, Cremona and St Paul: An Essay on the Pauline Iconography of Willie Apap and Emvin Cremona (Malta: Horizons)
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.