In June 1715 Thornhill was officially awarded the much-coveted commission to decorate the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London, for which he had been competing since 1709 (see Tate L01481). This small oil is one of a set of eight (see Tate L01482-6 and L01488-9) which probably forms a presentation set painted after the eight scenes from the life of St Paul as finally finished in the cupola. Thornhill strictly adhered to the 1709 and 1715 rulings that the dome be painted with figurative histories taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and that they be executed in monochrome, simulating sculptural relief. Thornhill worked on the cupola until 1717, for which he was paid £4,000, and on other areas of the dome until 1721 (see Tate L01482).
The Burning of the Books at Ephesus is the sixth episode in the cycle, which moves anti-clockwise round the dome starting with Paul's conversion positioned directly to the east. It is taken from Acts 19: 18-19 when Paul, now at Ephesus, converted some of the pagan priests and people of the city, who volunteered to burn their books: 'Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men'. Thornhill places an authoritative Paul on public steps directing the burning, while figures shoulder heavy volumes towards the lighted pyre.
Arline Meyer, Sir James Thornhill and the Legacy of Raphael's Tapestry Cartoons, exhibition catalogue, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University in the City of New York, 1996
Carol Gibson-Wood, 'The Political Background to Thornhill's Paintings in St Paul's Cathedral', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 56, 1993, pp.229-37
Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, I, London 1962, pp.73-4 and 271b