The subject of this work is taken from the Book of Acts, where Paul's mission to Ephesus is described. After successfully preaching to the local population, many of the new converts came foward to burn their old books and scrolls containing ancient texts, to show their allegiance to the new Faith: 'Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed' (Book of Acts, 19:19-20). This uncompromising subject proved particularly popular to artists during the Counter Reformation. Massari shows a bearded Saint Paul, with crucifix and sword, encouraging the burning of the heretical books in the town square. The artist has attempted to capture something of the exotic character of Ephesus, with the local converts variously clothed in eastern costume and classical dress; a juxtuposition mirrored in the architecture with the classical column in the background and sections of an antique architrave in the foreground, contrasted with the view of the city in the distance, with its more modern towers and forts.
This attribution of this work to the Bolognese painter Lucio Massari was first suggested by Dr. Erich Schleier and Dr. Stephen Pepper, an attribution that was subsequently confirmed by Professor Alessandro Brogi (A. Brogi, op. cit., p. 137, n.29). Brogi dates this work around 1612 after Massari's informative trip to Rome where he was so forcefully struck by the classical style of the young Domenichino. On his return journey to Bologna, Massari stopped in Florence and here executed frescoes in the nearby Certosa del Galluzzo, of The Martyrdom of St Stephen and The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, where Domenichino's influence can be clearly seen. The present work also exhibits the same archaic classicism found in these frescoes. The importance of Massari's travels outside Bologna can also be seen in his treatment of the figures in this work, where the influence of such Florentine artists as Lodovico Cigoli and Jacopo da Empoli, can be detected in the pose of the main standing figure holding an open book in the left foreground, and the figure bending over on the far right.