Acts of the Apostles 9:1–31; 22:1–21; 26:1–18
The Road To Damascus
Conversion Laid Bare
Commentary by Natasha O’Hear
This is Caravaggio’s second major attempt at visualizing the vision of Saul (soon to be Paul). His first version of 1600/01 (now in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome) is a dark and overcrowded composition, in which a partially naked Saul cowers and covers his face in reaction to the ‘divine ambush’ he is experiencing.
In this later painting the mood is quite different. This is a pared down, contemplative meditation on the visionary experience. Gone is the crowded drama of most contemporary versions of the subject matter and in their place is a young and ordinary Saul consumed by his vision.
There are just two other figures in this composition: the horse and the groom. The white charger of Renaissance tradition has been replaced by a more humble piebald horse. Horse and groom seem oblivious to Saul’s vision, rather than terrified, as was generally the case in contemporary versions, which more closely mirror the Acts accounts (with their statements that the companions either saw (Acts 22) or heard the vision (Acts 9) or fell to the ground (see Acts 26:14)). Caravaggio’s Saul lies on his back, facing away from the viewer. The floor is angled in a way that is analogous to a raked stage so that Saul tilts down towards us, his face partially visible. His splayed legs and dislodged helmet hint at the sudden and forceful nature of the divine encounter while Saul’s arms, held aloft in a cruciform pose may imply an informed acceptance of the experience.
Crucially, Caravaggio has not included Christ in the composition, merely hinting at his presence via the artificial light source shining directly onto Saul. This might be seen as an amazingly ‘modern’ representation of the conversion in its suggestion that a vision is a psychological episode rather than a physically observable irruption in the external world. But Caravaggio would also have been aware of mystical traditions that acknowledge that God’s power and presence cannot be reduced to worldly phenomena, and exceed what can be represented in either verbal or visible formulae. Union with God comes by way of purgation. Illumination comes after a necessary stripping back.
‘The Least of the Apostles’
Commentary by Natasha O’Hear
Michelangelo Buonarroti’s monumental fresco of Saul’s conversion (after which he uses the new name Paul), has often been maligned by art historians (see Steinberg 1975: 17–21, 32–37). The artist takes many of the medieval tradition’s established visual motifs, but then exaggerates and subverts them, before weaving them together in his own original composition.
Yet the fresco is in many ways an apposite rendering of the Acts conversion texts (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–21; 26:12–18). Michelangelo successfully captures both the narrative energy of the Acts accounts, and the confusion they convey.
The medieval tradition generally presented Christ in bust form in a neat mandorla or cloud-like enclosure at the top of the scene. Here, by contrast, we see a dynamic, naturalistic Christ breaking through into the earthly realm, both bathed in and emanating heavenly light (see Acts 26:13: the light is ‘more blinding than the sun’). In a further break with earlier visual tradition, Christ is surrounded by a heavenly host of around thirty figures. They provide a compositional balance to the twenty-three travelling companions scattered below. The companions encompass all the reactions described in the three Acts accounts (hearing, being blinded by the light, falling).
The figure in the centre of the fresco grapples with Saul’s runaway horse, whereas prior visualizations had shown Saul in the very moment of being unhorsed. Saul himself lies prostrate and humbled in the centre foreground, literally the ‘lowest’ figure in the scene. He is an aged Saul (he was actually around thirty at the conversion) and has Michelangelo’s features. Michelangelo may be reflecting on his own humbled state in his later years, whereby he eschewed his former pride in his art in favour of a longing for divine regeneration through grace (Steinberg 1975: 39; Corley 1997: 8).
Saul’s closed eyes may suggest that he is spiritually elsewhere (with Christ?), and his vulnerable, stationary pose signals that he is subsumed by the experience. Thus, Michelangelo contrasts Saul’s calm moment of ‘ultimate revelation’ with the chaotic and uncomprehending reaction of the companions.
Corley, Bruce. 1997. ‘Interpreting Paul’s Conversion-Then and Now’, in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry, ed. by Richard Longnecker (Eerdmans), pp. 1–17
Steinberg, Leo. 1975. Michelangelo’s Last Paintings: The Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace (Oxford: OUP)
A Visionary Awakening
Commentary by Natasha O’Hear
William Blake’s Conversion of Saul is part of the artist's biblical watercolour series, produced between 1800–05 for his loyal patron, Thomas Butts. While it is difficult to discern an overall programme to the series, in his New Testament images Blake explores themes of divinity and spiritual illumination, as well as different attitudes towards discipleship (which he presents in terms of ‘ideal’ and ‘deficient’ responses to Jesus/Christ). It is helpful to consider this watercolour within the context of this series and these themes.
Interestingly, Blake includes some medieval motifs in his composition. Thus Saul sits atop a magnificent yet prostrate white horse. Yet in a nod to the Renaissance iconography (cf. the Michelangelo version), a flying Christ dominates the top half of the composition. He is bathed in light and surrounded either by a heavenly host, or perhaps by the souls of those whom Saul was persecuting (see Acts 26:9–11). Christ appears to be pointing Saul in the direction of Damascus. His robes almost touch Saul, suggesting a mingling of the human and the divine that was for Blake the ultimate aim of discipleship (Billingsley 2018: 127–31).
Saul himself is young, muscular, and attired in the Roman style (cf. Caravaggio’s depiction). He too has spread his arms in what may be a simple sign of total acceptance of his mission, or more symbolically a cruciform gesture (an acknowledgement of the consequences of that acceptance). Blake believed that anyone could share in the ‘Human Form Divine’ (in short, Christ), so long as they altered their way of perceiving the world (Billingsley 2018: 11–13).
Thus here we see the moment at which, for Blake at least, Saul, a known persecutor of Christians, definitively opened his field of visionary perception. The dark and huddled mass of his travelling companions in the background of the image, only one of whom has turned his head to see the vision, form an important visual counterpoint to the man who, in becoming Paul, is the ‘ideal’ disciple.
Billingsley, Naomi. 2018: The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism, and the Pictorial Imagination (London: IB Tauris)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
Conversion of Saul, 1601 , Oil on canvas
Michelangelo Buonarroti :
Conversion of Saul, c.1542–5 , Fresco
William Blake :
The Conversion of Saul, c.1800 , Pen and watercolour on wove paper
A Seismic Moment
Comparative commentary by Natasha O’Hear
The visual tradition of Paul’s conversion from his earlier life as Saul is rooted in the Acts accounts (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–21; 26:12–18) but was also influenced by Augustine, the twelfth-century Glossa Ordinaria, and particularly the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. Interestingly, the first-person Pauline accounts of the conversion of Galatians 1:11–17 and 1 Corinthians 9:1, for example, lack much of the narrative detail of the Acts accounts and so have not held much influence over the visual tradition.
Although the conversion unfolds across many verses in the Acts passages, a single visual image is able to bring all (or at least many) of the narrative elements together in one synchronic space. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and William Blake have all attempted to do the fullest justice they can to the author of Luke–Acts preoccupation, bordering on obsession, with the seismic moment at which Saul, a persecutor of Christians, encountered Christ and became the evangelist par excellence. They, and their patrons, recognized the enormous importance of the event in terms of the development of Christianity, an idea that is also forcefully asserted in The Golden Legend’s account of the conversion.
It is worth noting that, despite this common aim, these three artists have used very different media to express the subject matter: Michelangelo created a monumental fresco for one of the most important chapels in Christendom, Caravaggio’s painting is much smaller but was also created for a chapel context, and Blake’s watercolour (much smaller still) was created as part of an extended, yet private, biblical series for his patron Thomas Butts. Yet within these contrasting formats, all three artists have hinted at a phenomenology of religious vision—in other words, what it feels like to have an encounter with God.
Turning first to the nature of Saul’s vision: in at least two of the three images, the role of the companions is key to emphasizing both the personal and unexpected nature of the experience, as well as its great significance. In Michelangelo’s fresco the chaotic reaction of the companions is visually contrasted with Saul’s calmer demeanour. The beam of heavenly light, which is angled directly onto him, also gives us a sense of his having been ‘set apart’, something that Paul himself would emphasize in his Galatians account of his conversion (Galatians 1:15; this idea is also alluded to in Acts 26:16).
Similarly, in the Blake image, the huddled, barely-human companions who appear behind Saul form a visual and symbolic contrast with him. Saul is bathed in light and appears almost ecstatically open to his revelation of Christ. While all of the three Acts accounts emphasize the differing yet uniformly inadequate reactions of the companions, it is in visual form that this contrast can be brought to the fore most evocatively.
Saul’s unquestioning acceptance (and almost immediate execution) of his mission to the Gentiles is reiterated in all three Acts accounts. The cruciform arm gestures of Saul in the works of both Caravaggio and Blake subtly yet powerfully capture this idea. They imply that this is a moment both of ultimate revelation of Christ and of Saul’s mission (although we are given no narrative detail regarding what exactly is revealed to Saul in his vision), as well as of a deep understanding of the hardship and sacrifice that this mission will entail. Caravaggio’s young and ‘ordinary’ Saul also implies that the state of grace that Saul entered via his vision is (potentially at least) open to all.
We turn finally to the issue of how these images evoke the nature of the visionary experience for the viewer. Whereas the medieval visual tradition generally presents visionary experiences as having a clear external source (God, Christ, or an angel), two of these three images present the experience as—although still resolutely ‘God-given’—something altogether more internal; psychological even.
Michelangelo’s Saul has his eyes closed and is consumed by the experience. Christ hovers above, as both the source and focus of the experience.
Caravaggio’s Saul is presented as having an entirely internal, possibly mystical experience of Christ. Christ himself is physically absent from the image (save for the ‘heavenly light’ that illuminates the prostrate Saul), pressing us to imagine what is going on in his mind.
And finally, although Blake seems to posit an external source for the vision (Christ), his image is open to being read on two levels. Blake believed that visions were experienced by accessing one’s faculty of ‘imaginative sight’. So, in this image, we the viewer may be witnessing an ‘external rendering’ of a visionary process that for Saul was happening internally. We are made partakers with Saul in his inward and mystical sight.