This bible story of St Paul and the viper – how Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Melita (modern day Mljet in the Adriatic Sea, not Malta as often erroneously stated), the locals lit a bonfire to warm the survivors, a viper ran from the fire and attached itself to Paul’s arm, Paul shook it off and was unharmed – is told in Acts chapter 28 verse 3. The depiction in the form of a wall painting in St Anselm’s chapel dates from around the 1160s (Image 1). A framed modern copy by E W Tristram is attached to the wall outside the chapel (Image 2). The painting was hidden for 700 years before it was revealed during restoration of the chapel in 1888. A companion painting of St Peter on the opposite wall has been lost.
What to see:
- St Paul appears on a bright blue background wearing a white tunic and buff mantle with red folds
- the movement, poise and solidity of the figure are impressive
- the skin tones and the folding of Paul’s garments are well depicted with shades of colouring – a distinct advance on wall paintings in St Gabriel’s chapel
- note the bunch of faggots in Paul’s hand, the white snake to the right, and the fire burning in the bottom right corner
- Paul’s nimbus (halo) would originally have been in gilt, and so much brighter