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 L01482-8) 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 Shipwreck at Malta is the eighth and final 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 28: 1-6. Freed by Agrippa but obliged to stand trial in Rome, on his way there Paul was shipwrecked with other prisoners on Malta. The islanders made them welcome by helping them build a fire, but while Paul was handling a bundle of sticks 'there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.'
As with the other episodes that make up the dome's decorative scheme, several sketches and drawings survive showing the gradual evolution of the composition. Thornhill also made careful drawings after the finished works for the use of engravers - a set was published in 1720.
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