Conversion of Saul by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Conversion of Saul, 1601, Oil on canvas, 230 x 175 cm, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy / Bridgeman Images

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Conversion Laid Bare

Commentary by

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 The white charger of Renaissance tradition has been replaced by a more humble piebald horse.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.