Paul's Shipwreck (Shipwreck of Apostle Paul on Malta) by Ludolf Backhuysen I

Ludolf Backhuysen I

Paul's Shipwreck (Shipwreck of Apostle Paul on Malta), 1690, Oil on canvas, 151 x 204 cm, Ostfriesisches Landesmuseum, Emden, akg-images

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‘The Direful Spectacle’

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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

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