what is a significant aspect of caravaggio’s painting the conversion of st. paul?
Widely regarded as one of the best artists of all time, Caravaggio is famous for introducing a revolutionary style of naturalism, which marked a complete break from Mannerism and outshone even the classicism of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). For more, see: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting (1600-1700). His masterpieces for the Contarelli Chapel helped him to secure additional commissions, like The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) for the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Within 5 years his religious paintings were regarded as the most exciting in Rome. His naturalist style should have been well suited to the needs of Catholic Counter-Reformation art – as laid down by the Council of Trent – but some of it was considered too vulgar by the more conservative church authorities, and rejected. But this had little effect on his reputation and any rejected works were invariably snapped by art collectors and other artists. Unfortunately his violent temperament led to a self-imposed exile for the last years of his life – see for instance Caravaggio in Naples (1607-10) – but despite his death at the age of only 38, “Caravaggism” lived on throughout the century, influencing some of the leading Italian Baroque artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi (15931656), as well as Old Masters like Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664).
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus was one of two paintings commissioned by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi (1544-1601), treasurer to Pope Clement VIII (reigned 1592-1605) for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. It is possible that the commission was secured for Caravaggio by his new patron, the Italian banker and art collector Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637). The other painting was the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. These works – both of which still hang in the chapel today – were second versions, as Caravaggio’s first versions had been rejected. The first Conversion, now in the Odescalchi Collection, was a brighter Mannerist painting, – much more conventional than the second version.
The Conversion of Saint Paul (or Conversion of Saul), by the Italian painter Caravaggio, is housed in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection of Rome. It is one of at least two paintings by Caravaggio of the same subject, the Conversion of Paul. Another is The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo.
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 position of Paul, the angle from which we view his head and the angle at which his body extends into the depth means that spectator needs to turn their own head to try and look at the Paul’s eyes. The raised arms create a kind of frame drawing the eye along the recessive diagonal of the body right into the centre of the picture. The colours used in the painting are earthy tones, in the background, muted and dark, and in the foreground more vivid with the red cloth underneath Paul and the oranges of his armour.
The Conversion of Saint Paul’ and ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ are archetypal because of their large scale depiction’s of the suffering of saints and matydom. To enforce the censorship of subjects disapproved by the Catholic Church financial support of artists working outside the catholic church was scarce. It was because the Protestants criticised Catholicism for being too lavish in regards to art that so many elaborate works of great size were commissioned during this period, works such as this.
One painting that is characteristic of his style is Conversion of Saint Paul.
Caravaggio has been called sordid, grotesque, and violent. Caravaggio has also been called brilliant and genius. But one thing is for sure: he mastered Baroque painting and had a tremendous influence on artists, especially painters, who followed.
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.