caravaggio conversion of st paul
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“The Conversion of St Paul”, Caravaggio, 1602, Santa Maria Del Popolo, Rome. The scenes from the life of St Matthew in Rome’s San Luigi Francesi made Caravaggio famous. He was about 27. Within months, the very eminent Tiberio Cerasi, Treasuer General under Clement VIII, commissioned him to paint St Paul’s conversion and St Peter’s crucifixion for the side walls of the chapel in th“e Augustinian Church of Santa Maria del Popolo for which he had acquired burial rights. In the contract, Caravaggio is referred to as “egregius in Urbe pictor”, in order words, as the most best painter in Rome. The choice of two key scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul was hardly a surprising for a Roman side-chapel. This Church, located just inside the northern gate of the city was the first that pilgrims entered on their arrival. But it was unusual to put these two scenes together. The precedent was the two frescoes in the Vatican’s Capella Paolina, painted by Michelangelo for Paul III in 1545. Caravaggio and Cerasi knew that comparisons would be made. But just as St Paul’s conversion was the defining moment of his life, one could argue that these two works mark a similar point in Caravaggio’s development as an artist. Like most artists, Caravaggio would draw on elements seen in the works of others, but in this commission he did something entirely new. In the account of the conversion in the Acts of the Apostles there is the journey, the blinding light, the fall to the ground and the voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Companions are mentioned too. They stand “speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:8). Of course, artists had embellished this rather bare story. Michelangelo’s fresco shows Paul’s companions as a company of soldiers on horseback and Christ descends from the sky surrounded by a battalion of angels in a manner not unlike that of his final judgement in the Sistine Chapel. But Caravaggio simply paints what you might have seen if you were there. He does not attempt to show heavenly realms. He keeps the horse and the mysterious light and lays St Paul flat on his back. To modern eyes the saint is like someone on stage, lit only by a spotlight. But notice that unlike on a stage set, there is no distance between St Paul and the viewer. In the rather small Cerasi Chapel the prone body of St Paul is directly in front of your eyes. The horse is just above you. By showing the horse at an angle he provides a sense of depth in what would otherwise be flat darkness and gives credibility to the extremely foreshortened body of St Paul. The effect is astonishing in that the viewer cannot but identify with saint. Standing in the chapel, the viewer might even raise his or her arms to embrace the same light falling around St Paul. In earlier versions, the horses were war horses and the whole cohort were dressed as soldiers. Here St Paul is an ordinary young Roman soldier. The horse is a beast of burden, which would have been so common on the streets of any town or village and a reminder of home to the pilgrim. There is no saddle, so nothing suggests that St Paul was actually on the horse when he fell. The horse and handler may just be fellow travellers on the same road. I have never handled a horse but I grew up in an area where horse training was big business. One of the things, you notice as you wait to let the handler get the high strung race horse into a gate so that you can pass pass is the bond between the horse and its handler. This is no race horse but you can see this same intimate bond. Neither horse nor handler understand what is happening but they do understand each other. The horse’s hoof is raised so as not to injure the saint; a detail which speaks of the gentle nature of the animal, but also tells us that St Paul has fallen only moments before. The animal will soon move so as to stand on all fours. Modelled in bright colours, the drama emerges from the dark background. Perhaps the most remarkable and novel element is the fall of bright light into a darkened space. This play of light and darkness was to dominate in the rest of Caravaggio’s art. Like a single spotlight on a dark stage, it directs our focus, but for Caravaggio it does far more. His contemporaries did not have our wave theory of light. They took the phenomenon of light to be both natural and divine. In literature and scripture light stood for what we can know: darkness for what we cannot know. From a religious point of view, the interplay of darkness and light evokes thoughts of sin and grace. And since antiquity light was strongly associated with divinity. But Caravaggio’s theatrical lighting also conveys the self-revelation of a God who both incarnate and transcendent, and always beyond our capacity to know him fully. The disjunction and continuity between what we can see and feel here and now, and what we believe we shall see is at the heart of Caravaggio’s art and is central to the life of faith we now live. As St Paul himself says: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” ( 1 Cor 13:8). The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul is on this coming Saturday.
Name: Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601)
Artist: Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement: Italian Baroque painting
Location: Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).
Caravaggio biographer Helen Langdon describes the style of Conversion as “an odd blend of Raphael and clumsy rustic realism,” but notes how the composition, with its jagged shapes and irrational light which licks out details for their dramatic impact, creates “a sense of crisis and dislocation [in which] Christ disrupts the mundane world.”
The painting records the moment when Saul of Tarsus, on his way to Damascus to annihilate the Christian community there, is struck blind by a brilliant light and hears the voice of Christ saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid, but they heard not the voice. ” (Acts 22:6-11). Elsewhere Paul claims to have seen Christ during a vision, and it is on this basis that he grounds his claim be recognised as an Apostle: “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (I Corinthians 9:1).
Caravaggio’s style of tenebrism, where forms in paintings emerge from a dark background with usually one source of stark light, created dramatic effects with its strong contrasts. This lighting was evoking spiritual drama in the Conversion of Saint Paul.  The brighter areas are juxtaposed with “heavy dark patches, especially deep beneath the horse’s belly and extending into impenetrable darkness that lies outside and beyond the circular grouping of the three figures”. The usual landscape background was dismissed entirely and replaced with an intense concentration on the three figures who compose the scene.  The strong light and the enveloping darkness makes this focus even more intense.
As he went he drew near Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” He said, “Who are You, Lord?” The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” 
Only Baglione mentions that Caravaggio carried out two sets of paintings for the Cerasi Chapel. He wrote that the first pair was rejected because the donor, Monsignor Cerasi, did not like them (therefore they must have been completed before Cerasi’s death in May, 1601). Baglione had good reason to hate Caravaggio, so his statement may be suspect, particularly when unconfirmed by any other source as close to the scene as he was. Mancini was that close, and his only relevant comment is that Cardinal Sannesio owned pictures that were “copied and retouched” from those now in the chapel, a description surely not applicable to this painting. It is not specifically documented until 1701, when it was in Genoa bequeathed by Francesco Maria Balbi, from whose heirs it eventually passed to Prince Odescalchi. Many Caravaggio specialists have not felt able to place so crowded and confused a composition anywhere in Caravaggio’s oeuvre.
However, Baglione does write that Caravaggio painted the first set in a manner different from his usual style. The intricately packed composition, which by itself seems so contradictory, is remarkably similar to the tangled left side of the final version of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (colorplate 16), which should have immediately preceded it chronologically. The source of light from the right, as in the final version, would be exceptional in Caravaggio’s oeuvre, but correct for the painting if it were installed on the right wall of the chapel. The support, the cypress-wood panel required in the contract, is only slightly smaller than the canvas now in place. The old bearded soldier, Christ, and the boy angel are familiar Caravaggio models, and the landscape is similar to that in The Sacrifice of Isaac. Finally, whatever questions have been raised about this picture, the brilliant/attura is undeniably worthy of Caravaggio himself; virtuoso details such as the helmet or the old soldier’s sleeve require a hand as skilled as his.