The feast day of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is celebrated in Malta every year on February the 10th. It is a public holiday throughout the entire nation, yet it is often honored with great fervor in Valletta since this feast has long held a special meaning for the Maltese people.
In the year 60 AD, based on the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul was sailing to Rome to stand trial. The ship encountered a severe storm at one point during the trip, and as a result, it finally capsized off the shore of Malta. St. Paul and the rest of the crew successfully reached the land, where they were greeted and looked after by the natives. During his three-month stay, St. Paul is said to have done many wonders, but more importantly, he is credited for bringing Christianity to Malta by converting the locals.
This, at least, is what tradition suggests. The oldest archaeological findings of Christianity in Malta have been dated to the 4th century AD, many hundred years after the shipwreck, which makes some experts less certain. One must also keep in mind that Islam would have replaced Christianity as the main religion in Malta for a considerable period of time after the Arab invasion in 870 AD. Then, perhaps, some of the legends surrounding St. Paul’s visit began to gain popularity to highlight Malta’s Christian heritage while encouraging a split with Islam. With the entrance of the Knights of St. John, his cult developed and became stronger. He discovered the ideal chance to appeal to the locals by supporting their patron saint, in addition to the fact that controlling many Pauline shrines would have improved their own reputation. As a result, several Pauline tales developed over time.
1. The location of the wreck
The precise site of the shipwreck is one matter that has been up for discussion for a while. Tradition holds that this occurred in St. Paul’s Bay, notably close to St. Paul’s Islands, where a famous monument of the saint was built in 1844. Even Pope John Paul II, who visited Malta in 1990, had a boat tour of the region. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this, and several investigations have been made to extract the limited material from the Acts of the Apostles to pinpoint the actual site.
Several Roman-era anchors were discovered on the seafloor around St. Thomas Bay in the 1960s. Some argued that these originated from the shipwreck, particularly since the site seemed to correspond with a few of St. Luke’s facts. However, it was unable to demonstrate this theory.
An identical anchor was later found in Salina Bay in 2005. It did feature engraved inscriptions with the names of two Graeco-Egyptian gods: St. Paul is known to have been traveling aboard an Egyptian grain ship, though there is still no way to confirm that it was connected to St. Paul. Another intriguing fact is that Salina Bay was a significant Roman port since the sea used to reach all the way up to Burmarrad, which is where it is generally accepted that the survivors spent their first three days on Malta. Despite all of these hypotheses, the precise site of St. Paul’s shipwreck is still unknown—at least for the time being.
2. The legend of Għajn Rażul Fountain
The myth surrounding the Gajn Raul fountain at St. Paul’s Bay is an intriguing one. It is unknown when the fountain was initially built, but Grand Master Vilhena constructed the upper portion, which includes a statue of St. Paul inside a niche, in 1725. To care for the thirsty survivors of the shipwreck, St. Paul is said to have made water appear on the site where this was done by tapping the ground with his staff.
It’s important to note that the Arabic term for “messenger” is “rasul,” which has been used to allude to St. Paul, God’s messenger, but it might possibly have come from the first name of the original land owner. While the position of Gajn Raul supports the idea that the saint did land at St. Paul’s Bay, it’s important to keep in mind that the fountain was significantly relocated from its original site during road widening work in the 1900s.
3. The Bonfire Church
Another significant landmark at St. Paul’s Bay is the Church of the Bonfire, which is thought to have been built on the spot where, according to St. Luke, the Maltese started a bonfire to warm the survivors as soon as they landed nearby.
Although the precise date of the construction of the original church in this location is unknown, several references in historical writings provide proof that it was among the earliest churches in Malta and was well-known for drawing a lot of pilgrims. During the reign of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, a devout man who showed great devotion to this specific saint, the church received special attention. With the help of the architect Vittorio Cassar, who also oversaw the building of the neighboring tower, Wignacourt had the church renovated. The 17th-century church was badly destroyed during World War Two, but it was reconstructed in 1957 using the original plans.
4. The Viper
The bonfire is especially notable since it is mentioned in what is arguably the longest-running local myth connected to St. Paul. Again, according to St. Luke’s story, St. Paul was helping to gather firewood when he was bitten by a snake, shocking everyone in the room who had anticipated that he would suffer a miserable death from poisoning. The superstitious townspeople initially believed that he was a criminal who the Gods intended to punish, but they quickly realized that he had not experienced any negative consequences, leading them to conclude that he was a god who was immune to harm. This had a significant impact on their acceptance of his beliefs. According to the legend, all snakes in Malta lost their venom from that day.
This is not true, though; there are four different species of snakes on the Maltese Islands, one of which is poisonous. The cat snake is exceedingly uncommon and challenging to find. It seldom grows longer than 75 cm and poses little threat to people since its venom can only be used to kill small animals that it can swallow whole, including small rats, mice, or lizards.
5. San Pawl Milqi
San Pawl Milqi, an archeological site near Burmarrad, has the remains of a Roman villa and temple in addition to a more modern Christian church. It is known that a church from the fourteenth century that was similarly devoted to the Welcoming of St. Paul was replaced by this one from the seventeenth century. The location’s historical ties to the local Pauline heritage are obvious. This is because it is said that this is where the shipwreck survivors’ first three days on Malta were spent, as noted in the Acts of the Apostles, and entertained by Publius, the island’s ruler. It is also believed that Paul treated Publius’ father’s dysentery in this location, leading Publius to accept Christianity.
Consequently, what does archaeology say? The region has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with the Phoenicians most likely being responsible for the earliest building. Strong archaeological evidence confirms the fact that the site was perfect for the production of olive oil during the Roman era due to its location on the slopes of a lush valley and its proximity to the harbor at Salina. However, is this the location where Publius received St. Paul? Although it is important to note that there is no proof of Christian worship at this location previous to the church from the 14th century, that cannot be proved.
6. The Mdina Cathedral
The Mdina Cathedral, which is linked to St. Paul’s name, is another place with ties to him. According to mythology, Publius, who is said to have been Malta’s first bishop, replaced a palace with the alleged location of the island’s first Christian church.
The current cathedral is the product of renovations made in the wake of the terrible earthquake in 1693. It is generally known that a treasure of gold coins from the Arab and Byzantine empires, totaling 9,000 scudi, was found amid the debris in April 1698 when excavation work was being done. The religious and civil authorities would later disagree on how the riches should be divided, but news quickly spread that St. Paul had worked a miracle and allowed the discovery of the treasure in order to help in raising money for the building of the new church.
Two works by the well-known Italian artist Mattia Preti, one of which illustrates St. Paul’s conversion and the other his shipwreck, are among the cathedral’s highlights. Another legend is shown in a lesser-known picture by the same artist that hangs in the nave. Mdina was under attack by a sizable group of Tunisian Saracens in 1429. After three days of grueling warfare, they were finally routed, but not before over 3,000 locals had been murdered or taken prisoner. According to legend, St. Paul once unexpectedly rode into battle with a sword in hand, riding on a white horse. The Cathedral Chapter hired Preti to portray this same incident centuries later.
7. St. Paul’s Grotto
The parish church in Rabat is similarly devoted to St. Paul and is not too far away. Because of the grotto that lies underneath it, which is said to have been where St. Paul stayed during his three-month visit to the island, it also has ties to St. Paul and a very rich history. St. Paul’s Grotto is one of the most revered locations in Malta, which may or may not explain why it has drawn several famous people throughout the years, including two popes.
St. Paul’s Earth, which was formed from powdered stone chippings gathered from the site and was thought to be beneficial in treating poisonous snake bites and poisons as well as smallpox and fevers when administered combined with wine, was another treasured medicinal product that was produced at the grotto and became quite well-known during the period of the Knights of St. John. This was unmistakably related to the viper tale. The material would have been in the Sacra Infermeria pharmacy’s inventory and was seen as a deserving gift to offer to notable individuals. However, it’s interesting to note that according to the tradition, no matter how much rock was chipped away, it always appeared to grow back, and the grotto stayed the same size.