SAUL TO PAUL: ‘The Conversion on the Way to Damascus’ by Caravaggio (1601)

SAUL TO PAUL: ‘The Conversion on the Way to Damascus’ by Caravaggio (1601)

The great and brilliant Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) goes down in history as the legendary bad boy.  His life was termed turbulent; his attitude – mad, bad and perilous. He lived by the sword and was apparently prosecuted for having carried one in public without a license. His litany of infringements include throwing a plate of artichokes in the waiter’s face, casting a sword against another man in a love dispute, hurling stones at his landlady and the worst of all murdering a man over a tennis match brawl.

With the eventual death sentence hanging round his neck, he flees from Rome to Naples, Sicily and Malta. Thanks to his powerful Roman lobby, in the summer of 1610 he receives a pardon for his crime. As he sails northwards towards Rome the news of his sudden spasmodic death spreads throughout the region. The cause was cited to be fever but later argued to be a murder.

The mystery surrounding Caravaggio’s death can hardly be compared to the fresh breath of life rendered by his art to posterity. His crazy genius is well reflected in today’s masterpiece titled ‘The Conversion on the Way to Damascus’. It was executed in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. The work was commissioned by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, Treasurer-General to Pope Clement VIII who had purchased the chapel from the Augustinian friars in July 1600.    

Saul, a fiery Pharisee, loved the law and in faithfulness lived by it. Like his co-patriots, he too awaited with great hope the coming of a powerful Messiah who would save His people from the pagan yoke. The Christian concept of the suffering and crucified Messiah did not appeal to him. He could neither comprehend nor accept the new found Way. In fact he loathed and questioned it. As curiosity seized his conscience, his soul suffered in chaos.

In determination to preserve the purity of the Messaianic ideal, Saul began a series of hateful persecutions. Breathing murderous threats, he galloped off to Damascus to pursue and secure the truth. But the Truth he sought, seized and secured him. God changed the hateful man who in turn changed the history of the world. In the words of the Apostle himself, ‘I was overpowered by Christ’. (Phil 3:12)

Caravaggio captures this overpowering, world-changing phenomenon with absolute vehemence. Eliminating the extras, the artist lets darkness pervade his canvas. It leads us to the essential and the intimate encounter between Paul and Christ. The young passionate persecutor is flung off his horse and pinned to the ground. He lies there supine, silent, stunned with arms raised in surrender. The cacophony of the moment fails to feed his fanatic fears. Rather in solemn ecstasy Paul seems to embrace a vision, to receive the truth and submit to love. The dazzling light robs him of his bodily vision while igniting the eyes of his soul.

O look how the mighty have fallen! Caravaggio presents Paul not as a long-bearded, bald ascetic but as a young Renaissance Roman knight. The muscular man is garbed in a soldier’s outfit which includes orange and green muscle cuirass, pteruges, tunic and boots. His plumed helmet is knocked to the floor while his sword sleeps still on a blood red Roman cape. Little did the persecutor know that someday he would be persecuted, chained and led to die by the sword for the very cause he once resented.

Notice Caravaggio’s rendering of the Apostle. Foreshortened, the fallen body occupies a petite part of the large canvas. Paul does not face the viewer and yet the captive captivates us for he appears to fall into our space, awaiting to be held. This demonstrates Caravaggio’s unmatched skill of bridging the gap between the seen and the spectator. The Apostle’s outstretched arms symphonise with the profile of the animal standing before him and the old groom or the caretaker who witnesses the event impassively.

Interestingly Caravaggio lets the horse dominate his composition. The huge steed, in mottle brown and cream fur, neighs not madly nor gallivants off the scene. Rather the animal steps into the periphery of the spiritual. His upturned hoof lingers dangerously mid-air as if about to strike and trample upon the persecutor. However, notice the beautiful irony here. The horse precariously gazes at the closed-eyed prostrate figure, careful to cause him no hurt. The delicate balance of the uneasy hooves creates a visual tension that serves as a metaphor to meditate on.

The all-powerful God cares and is careful where He treads. He crushes the sin not the sinner. The light that invaded Paul ignited his heart by a thousand suns. He who knew about God came to know God in an intimate encounter on his road to Damascus. He who pursued revenge for God’s-sake soon realised that God’s revenge is Love. Where the mighty Saul fell, there a mightier Paul arose.  

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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