The Conversion of Saul by William Blake

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

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A Visionary Awakening

Commentary by

William Blake’s Conversion of Saul is part of his 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 elsewhere in this exhibition), 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, also in this exhibition). 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.

 

References

Billingsley, Naomi. 2018: The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism, and the Pictorial Imagination (London: IB Tauris)