The Shipwreck of St Paul by Willie Apap

Willie Apap

The Shipwreck of St Paul, 1960, Oil on canvas, Apostolic Nuntiature, Tal-Virtu', Rabat, Malta, © Estate of Willie Apap; Photo: © Governatorato SVC - Direzione dei Musei (All further use and reproduction strictly prohibited)

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Malta’s Paul

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)

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