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Adam Elsheimer, Saint Paul on Malta

Key facts
Full title Saint Paul on Malta
Artist Adam Elsheimer
Artist dates 1578 - 1610
Date made about 1600
Medium and support Oil on copper
Dimensions 16.8 × 21.3 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by Walter Burns through the Art Fund, 1920
Inventory number NG3535
Location Room 37
Art route(s) C
Collection Main Collection
Saint Paul on Malta
Adam Elsheimer

The story of Saint Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta is described in Acts (28: 1–6), and Adam Elsheimer has taken advantage of the biblical description to portray a night scene: ‘And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold’ (Acts 28: 2). This allowed him to use strong contrasts of light and darkness for dramatic effect. At the largest fire at the left corner – the brightest part of the picture – Saint Paul calmly drops a snake, which had bitten him, into the flames. The islanders who saw that he had not been injured by the snake’s venom were convinced that he was a god.

Elsheimer preferred to paint on a copper support, its smooth surface enabling him to include minute details like the scales of the writhing snake here.

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