Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Two Michelangelos

 Michelangelo Buonarroti, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1542-1545
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Pauline Chapel

"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?'
And he said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, 'What shall I do, sir?'
Acts 22: 6-10
With these words Saint Paul described the powerful experience that befell him on the road to Damascus, an experience that completely reshaped his life. From that point on, the persecutor of the Way in Jerusalem became the great apostle of the Way to the entire world, to Jew and Gentile alike. From this point on the man who had held the cloaks of those who had stoned Saint Stephen to death for proclaiming Jesus the Nazorean as Lord, was himself persecuted, imprisoned and martyred for the sake of that same Jesus. From that time on Saul of Tarsis became Paul, the preacher and teacher.

There are few more dramatic moments in the history of the early church than this event on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus. It is a drama that has received considerable attention from some of the world’s greatest artists. Among the greatest to have tackled it are two Michelangelos: Michelangelo Buonarotti (known as “Michelangelo”) and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (known as “Caravaggio”).

Both men initially imagined the scene as one of high drama and activity. Indeed, Michelangelo imagined it, in his great late painting in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel (painted 1542-1545), as an event involving large, active groups of figures in both heaven and earth. From heaven, Christ, surrounded by many other figures (angels, saints) plunges dramatically downward, a bolt of lightening springing from his hand, almost in the manner of the classical deity, Jupiter. The bolt hits the earthly group, which centers on the figure of Saul, lying on the ground, with his arm shielding his face, as a companion supports him. Other companions react by trying to shield themselves, or trying to flee, or simply by cowering, while one person tries to recapture Saul’s startled horse. Michelangelo’s Saul appears curiously older than he is usually depicted, being white bearded. He appears to bear a slight resemblance to Michelangelo himself. One wonders if there was some biographical content in his image. Or is it simply that he wanted to balance the older Saint Peter, whose martyrdom is depicted on the opposite wall of the Pauline Chapel?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Conversion of Saint Paul (detail)
Italian, c. 1542-1545
Vatican City, Pauline Chapel

In the composition, Michelangelo recapitulates some of his work in the Sistine Chapel, especially the “Last Judgment”, while harking back as well to such early Florentine works as the long-vanished “Battle of Cascina”.

Caravaggio painted two very different representations of the event on the road to Damascus relatively early in his career (both are dated as being circa 1600). The first version is usually called “The Conversion of Saul” and resides in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome. It is typical of many of Caravaggio’s compositions from around this time. (One thinks, for example, of the “Martyrdom of St. Matthew” in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome). There is a great rush of movement from the upper right where Christ and a supporting angel appear to plummet down, toward the lower left, where Saul lies, his hands covering his face. Caravaggio, of course, was the master of dramatic lighting effects, his great legacy to almost all later painters. And there is plenty of drama in the way in which the light from heaven illumines the face of the angel, the hands of Christ, the face of Saul’s startled companion and finally swells to a crescendo on Saul’s body and protective hands. This painting, commissioned by Cardinal Tiberio Cerasi for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, was never installed there. It was recently cleaned and exhibited in Milan during Advent 2008.

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Odescalchi Balbi Collection


The second version, which did get installed in the Cerasi Chapel, where it remains today, is often called “The Road to Damascus”. It is an extraordinary painting. Instead of a narrative full of frantic movement we are faced with the experience itself. With our vision blocked by the body of Saul's horse, we are, as it were, inside the silent center of the experience at the moment it happens. We are one of Saul’s companions. We see him in his weakness, his shock, his blindness. 

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1600-1601
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerisi Chapel

We see him sprawled on his back, in a tangle of arms and legs: his own and those of his horse and other companion. We do not see the cause of his fall, we see, as his companions did, only the light. But, although we cannot even see much of his face, we see the intensity of his reaction. We know he is listening to a voice we cannot hear. And we are struck with wonder.

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (detail)
Italian, c. 1600-1601
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerisi Chapel

When you stand in the Cerasi Chapel, which is very, very tiny, the effect of this monumental picture and its equally monumental pendent, “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” is truly overwhelming. One of the aims of Counter-Reformation art and of Baroque art in general is to engage the spectator, to make the events of salvation history present to the viewer. It is hard to imagine a more truly involving work of art.

© M. Duffy, 2009, pictures updated 2024.