Saint Paul and his companions were shipwrecked during a terrifying storm on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The event is described (Acts of the Apostles 28: 2-3) as having taken place during the day but Elsheimer has chosen to show the scene at night. The islanders lit fires to warm the survivors. A viper emerged from some sticks Paul placed on a fire and fastened on his hand. When the natives saw the creature they thought the saint was a murderer who was receiving justice. But when he shook off the snake and they saw that he had suffered no harm, they were convinced that he was a god.
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN