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.
22 “Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you.”
2 And when they heard that he addressed them in the Hebrew language, they were the more quiet. And he said:
3 “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Ciliʹcia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaʹli-el, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day. 4I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brethren, and I journeyed to Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 8And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ 9Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
12 “And one Ananiʹas, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. 20And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.’ 21And he said to me, ‘Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
22 Up to this word they listened to him; then they lifted up their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he ought not to live.” 23And as they cried out and waved their garments and threw dust into the air, 24the tribune commanded him to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by scourging, to find out why they shouted thus against him. 25But when they had tied him up with the thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen, and uncondemned?” 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him instantly; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
30 But on the morrow, desiring to know the real reason why the Jews accused him, he unbound him, and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.
26 Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense:
2 “I think myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3because you are especially familiar with all customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and at Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
12 “Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. 14And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you 18to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance. 21For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to the people and to the Gentiles.”
24 And as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad.” 25But Paul said, “I am not mad, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. 26For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” 29And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”
30 Then the king rose, and the governor and Berniʹce and those who were sitting with them; 31and when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”