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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
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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