The Conversion of Saul

What an incredible representation of a famous moment of spiritual awakening!  Karen Wilkin’s description of Caravaggio’s painting is breathtaking.


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  1. rudyink says:

    In September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi, Pope Clement VIII’s treasurer-general, commissioned three paintings for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. He chose the most adventurous artists of the day: Annibale Caracci, for an “Assumption of the Virgin,” over the altar, and Michelangelo Merisi—now known as Caravaggio, after his home town near Milan—for a “Crucifixion of Peter” and a “Conversion of Saul” on the side walls. The 40-year-old Caracci was admired for his revival of High Renaissance grandeur; Caravaggio, at 29, was a meteorically rising star who recently created a sensation with a startlingly realistic cycle of paintings telling the story of St. Matthew. Cerasi died before his chapel was completed in 1601, but he got more than his money’s worth. His commissions are among the key works of the Italian Baroque.

    A Transfiguring Moment
    When we enter Santa Maria del Popolo and walk toward the Cerasi chapel, to the left of the apse, it is the emphatic horizontal gesture of Caracci’s Virgin, arms outstretched as she ascends heavenward, that draws us past chapels filled with exquisite Renaissance tombs. As we come closer, the fierce canvases on the side walls assert themselves. Their diagonal compositions are compressed by the chapel’s narrow space, but we soon realize how carefully Caravaggio related his paintings to each other and to the whole. They frame and extend the Virgin’s gesture, diagramming the tight space of the chapel while demanding our complete attention for themselves. The robust anatomy of the cast of characters is meticulously itemized; sturdy bodies are illuminated against indeterminate voids. Caravaggio’s evocation of human form is wholly of this world, but floods of supernatural light—theatrical effects, centuries before the invention of Klieg lights and spots—make his brutal dramas among the most disquieting, potent images in the entire history of art.

    Both Caravaggios in the Cerasi chapel are extraordinary. But, if pressed, I have to admit a preference for “The Conversion of Saul,” if only for its sheer strangeness. The story is told in the Book of Acts. The apostle Paul recounts that early in his life, when he was known as Saul and had persecuted Christians, he and his companions traveling to Damascus were dazzled and felled by “light from heaven above the brightness of the sun”; blinded, Saul heard Jesus telling him that he had been chosen as his minister. Caravaggio’s version of the scene is a masterpiece of economy, the transfiguring moment described in Acts embodied solely by Saul, his mount, and a half-concealed elderly groom, the trio tightly packed into the available space.

    The ecstatic Saul is a young soldier in armor, fallen from his horse and sprawled on his back. He faces away from us, with the miraculous light illuminating his chest more than his features. We are excluded, relegated to the shadow, but allowed to bear witness. Saul’s arms reach up and outward, embracing the light, echoing the inverted pose of Peter and the wide gesture of the Virgin elsewhere in the chapel. Saul spills toward the corner of the canvas—toward us—oblivious of the massive horse that all but fills the canvas, just as the groom is oblivious to Saul’s transformation. That our sightline, from the center of the chapel, is on the axis with Saul’s supine body heightens the uncanny sense that everything unfolds not in a fictional painted space but in a sanctified part of our own environment, defined by pools of darkness and shafts of light. The absorbed visionary, the thick-bodied steed, and the bald-headed groom hover at the edge of our space.

    Caravaggio’s potent illusionism is challenged by the astonishing construction of the painting, a slow swirl of forms that press outward from the composition’s depths, a loop of light against bottomless darkness described by Saul’s open arms and the horse’s curved back, blocked by the “fence” of legs across the center of the picture, where human and equine limbs interlace with thundering intensity. We become fascinated by the contrast between the flat diagonal of Saul’s chest, the bulge of the horse’s belly above him, and the counterdiagonal of the horse’s body, thrust into the space of the painting. The combination of inevitability and intuitiveness in Caravaggio’s orchestration of implicitly geometric forms is staggering; there’s almost nothing like it in Western painting until Cézanne seeks “the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder in nature” in the late 19th century.

    Small details provide counterpoint: the veins on the groom’s bare legs and his furrowed forehead, the horseshoe and bridle, Saul’s upraised hands. But we are distracted by another insistent, syncopated rhythm, almost independent of the painting’s main event, carried by the lightest elements in Caravaggio’s palette: the pale flickers of the horse’s flank, socks and nose, a streak of mane, the gleam of the groom’s bald head. Then, suddenly, the great white shape of the horse’s massive shoulder and foreleg announces itself as a sort of lightning bolt, poised above the enraptured Saul. In the guise of naturalism, Caravaggio has created a stunning visual metaphor for transfiguration. Miraculous enlightenment is embodied by apparently everyday experience, so subtly that only if we spend a long time with this sublime painting do we begin to unlock its secrets.

    —Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.

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