(b. 1578, Frankfurt/Main, d. 1610, Roma)
St Paul at Maltac. 1600
Oil on copper, 17 x 21 cm
National Gallery, London
The demand for landscape painting among educated Italian patrons of the Renaissance was stimulated by their reading of Pliny the Elder's first-century Latin text on ancient art. Collectors applied his desciptions of Greek and Roman specialists in different kinds of pictures to their own contemporaries. German and Netherlandish artists, with their magical ability to depict delightful vistas in the backgrounds of religious paintings were soon identified by Italian clients as potential purveyors of 'pastoral' or 'rustic' pictures to rival the effects of the lighter veins of poetry and music. Northerners under the spell of Italian art theory complied with this view.
Elsheimer's precious little pictures on copper helped to transform landscape from a decorative adjunct to a major artistic genre. Trained in Germany and Venice and adept at both figure and landscape painting, Elsheimer gave visual form to two equally exotic impulses: awe of Northern woods and waters, and nostalgia for the ancient Mediterranean past.
This paintng belongs to the former category, although it treats two episodes from the Acts of Apostles (27:41-4; 28:1-6): the shipwreck of St Paul on the island of Malta and the miracle of the viper. Barely harder than a human hand, it recreates the effect of multiple illumination to reveal a drama of nature's might, human frailty and divine intervention. Lightning flashes on waves crashing against the shore, the spume rising to the top of gnarled trees clinging to the rocks. A beacon burns on the clifftop. The survivors gathered in the foreground dry their clothes, aided by the natives. As sparks fly upwards, the firelight glows warm on Italianate nudes and a wrinkled Nothern crone.