A-Level: Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (or The Conversion of Saul)

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (also known as The Conversion of Saul), c. 1601, oil on canvas, 230 x 175 cm (Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the church Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, and we’re looking at one of the most famous paintings by Caravaggio. This is “The Conversion of Saul.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] This is one of two paintings that Caravaggio painted here in the chapel called the Cerasi Chapel, named for the Cerasi family, and in fact, Tiberio Cerasi is buried here in this chapel.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] The painting itself shows an important story. It shows Saul, whose job it was to persecute Christians. He was on the road to Damascus when he was blinded by a light, and he heard a voice.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] That voice, the voice of Christ, said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was blinded for three days.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] Now that’s important, because Christ had been in his tomb for three days before he was resurrected, and Jonah in the Old Testament remained in the fish — which is often called a whale — for three days.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] So there is this Old Testament tradition that this is going back to of three days in the darkness before being saved by the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] It puts Saul, whose name becomes Paul, in this tradition that comes out of the Old Testament.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Here, we only see that divine supernatural force as light flooding down on Saul. He’s fallen off of his horse.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] Caravaggio has stripped out everything that’s not essential. He’s created monumental figures that fill the frame of the canvas. He’s pushed them forward and he’s placed them against this deep, dark background. When elements are illuminated, they stand out against that background.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] Saul’s face is the only face here that’s illuminated.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] Well, the groom doesn’t even seem to notice what’s going on.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] That’s what makes it all the more personal. That it is only Saul that hears God’s voice. This darkness that this is set in, no architecture, no landscape, this tenebroso, this dark style perhaps deriving from the art of Leonardo da Vinci but here taken so far by Caravaggio, and that darkness eliminating everything else that could distract us from this incredibly powerful moment.

Dr. Zucker: [2:07] It’s interesting to think about why this is happening at this particular moment, at the turn of the 17th century.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] The naturalism we see here, the way that we’re getting the rear end of the horse, the dirt on the ground. The figure of the groom who’s taking care of the horse looks like a man that Caravaggio probably asked to model for him that he met in Rome. That naturalism is part of this interest in legibility, in clarity, in art that comes out of the Counter-Reformation.

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] Specifically out of the Council of Trent. The idea was that painting could be didactic. One of the questions that Luther and other Protestants raised was whether or not it was all right to have paintings. The Council of Trent spoke to that directly and said yes, paintings had important didactic value within a religious context.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] It’s interesting to compare this to the first version of this painting, which was apparently rejected by the patron, where we see a narrative.

[3:03] Here, although we do have a sense of a caught moment in time, what we have is a condensation, a distilling of this moment of personal conversion that was very popular among Baroque artists.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] If we were looking at a Renaissance painting, it would be a more public moment. Figures would exist in a more rational space. Here, it almost seems as if we have a privileged, private view. The chapel itself is a narrow space.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] The space of the painting is confining. The figures take up side to side, top to bottom, with very little room to spare. Caravaggio’s definitely thinking about our view here. As we stand in this chapel and look obliquely across and up at the painting, Saul seems to fall out toward us.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] In the Renaissance, the idea was to create a sense of harmony, a sense of balance. Here, all of that is upended. This is precarious. It seems fleeting. The center of gravity is high rather than low. The largest and most massive part of this painting is the body of the horse, and it’s at the top.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] Beneath him, Saul seems very vulnerable. The horse’s hoof is lifted up. Saul’s helmet has fallen off of his head. There is this sense of the fragility of a human being being confronted with the power of the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] Saul is so close to us and seems so real. He lies on the bare earth.

Dr. Harris: [4:23] His knees are up. His legs are spread. His arms are spread.

Dr. Zucker: [4:28] His body is actually a triangle, but it’s upended. Whereas the Renaissance was concerned often with pyramidal compositions, with creating a stable pyramid, this is turning that pyramid up on its point.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] There’s so much foreshortening here. Not only is the body of Saul foreshortened, his sword is foreshortened, the horse is foreshortened, and so everything is so close to us. In the Renaissance, we often saw a distance between the world of human beings and the realm of the divine.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] Here, Saul is present in our world.

[4:59] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (or The Conversion of Saul)," in Smarthistory, July 17, 2017, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/caravaggio-saul-2/.