Caravaggio:
The Conversion on the Road to Damascus


Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

  • Oil on canvas, 1600
  • 230 x 175 cm
  • Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

In 1600, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint two pictures of Rome's Patron Saints (Peter and Paul) for the newly redecorated Santa Maria del Popolo. Of the two the more remarkable is the representation of the moment of St Paul's conversion. According to the Acts of the Apostles, on the way to Damascus Saul the Pharisee fell to the ground when he heard the voice of Christ saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' and temporarily lost his sight. It was reasonable to assume that Saul had fallen from a horse.

Caravaggio is close to the Bible. The horse is there and, to hold him, a groom, but the drama is internalized within the mind of Saul. He lies on the ground stunned, his eyes closed as if dazzled by the brightness of God's light that streams down the white part of the skewbald horse, but that the light is heavenly is clear only to the believer, for Saul has no halo. In the spirit of Luke,Caravaggio makes religious experience look natural.

Technically the picture has defects. The horse looks hemmed in, there is too much happening at the composition's base, too many feet cramped together, let alone Saul's splayed hands and discarded sword. Although some critics somplain that unlike his other treatment of the subject, this version lacks action. Yet, Caravaggio respects stillness.

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