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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

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Conversion of Saul, c.1542–5, Fresco, 625 x 661 cm, Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images

William Blake

The Conversion of Saul, c.1800, Pen and watercolour on wove paper, 423 x 371 mm, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 000.29, © The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens / Bridgeman Images

A Seismic Moment

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 26 Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 27