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Caravaggio - The Conversion of Saint Paul

by Alexandra Tuschka

A horse's bottom stretches out towards us. It is not necessarily graceful, this horse looks more like a plough horse than a fine warhorse. The light falling on the scene from above right illuminates not only the animal but also the young man who has fallen to the ground, stretching his arms and legs like a beetle. His eyes are closed. He seems to be filled with an inner movement. Another, older man, a farmhand, can be seen at the top right. He is taking care of the bridle and has not noticed anything of the scene in front.

The so-called "Damascus experience" of Saul can be seen. Saul of Tarsus was the son of a Pharisee, he was a violent persecutor of the early Christians. On his journey to Damascus, a light appeared in the sky and he heard the words "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?". The light struck Saul down. When he asked who was speaking to him, the voice revealed itself to be Jesus. Following this experience, Saul went blind for three days. After that he was converted and from then on called himself "Paul". As Paul, he became a promoter of the church of Christ. His letters are collected in the New Testament as the "Pauline Epistles". They date from the time between 48 and 61 AD and are the oldest surviving works of early Christianity.

The "Conversion of Saint Paul" by Caravaggio was one of two murals commissioned in September 1600 for the family chapel of Tiberio Cerasi in Santa Maria del Popolo. Alongside the "Crucifixion of Saint Peter", which is to the left of Annibale Carracci's altarpiece, "the Conversion of Paul" is positioned on the right. This arrangement was apparently considered by Caravaggio when he adjusted the incidence of light in both works. To this day - a rarity - both works are still in this very chapel and thus in the original place of their creation.

A first version of the theme, which was initially executed on wood, was rejected for unknown reasons. It is possible that the resistance of the protagonist was all too obvious here and did not please the patrons. In the later work, Paul's body surrenders to his vision, and there is no trace of resistance in his face. In the first version, the bearded man holds both hands in front of his eyes. The theme of "blinding" against one's will is strongly illustrated here. This scene is also much livelier and more dynamic than the later one. Perhaps the reduced scene and the intimacy of the moment was more appropriate. Christ, who can still be seen in the older picture and is accompanied by an angel, was then replaced by the unknown light source. Here his presence is only symbolic. Also, the old, bearded Saul became a young man. The foreshortening of the body and arrangement in the pictorial space also make Caravaggio's skill clear.

The horse in both scenes is an addition by the artist and is not mentioned in the Bible. Caravaggio is not the first to enliven this scene with the animal; this had become commonplace early in art. The "fall" in the Bible becomes the "fall from the horse" in art. Parmigiannio had already depicted the "Damascus experience" in this way. In the latter, it is much more strongly suggested that the horse could have thrown the rider. In Caravaggio's work, there is something to be said against this. Here the horse is standing still, gently lifting its hoof. It is also not saddled. The raised hoof also shows Paul's absolute surrender and helplessness on the ground. This is arranged in an inverted triangle. On the one hand this is very unstable, but on the other hand it symbolises the opening and receiving of the divine message.

The blindness is also interpreted as spiritual blindness, the inability to recognise God. The relocation of the scene to an intimate setting, possibly a stable and thus an interior space, is also almost singular. Mostly the scene takes place on the journey, in the midst of many companions in the landscape. Saul, as the pursuer, is usually armed and carries a sword, which will become his attribute; albeit as a martyr's tool, for Paul is later executed by Nero. The red cloak on which he lies is also an attribute. Here it is spread out and forms a complementary contrast to the green of the armour. The weapon, on the other hand, has fallen to the ground beside him; instead, the servant unconsciously leads the horse's head to his right hand - to a faithful companion for the further journey.

Caravaggio - The Conversion of Pauli

Oil on canvas, 1601, 230 x 175 cm, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio - The Conversion of Paul (1st version)

Oil on wood, 1699, Odescalchi Collection, Rome

Parmigiannio - The Conversion of Pauli

Oil on canvas, 1552, 177.5 x 128 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


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