The conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio

The conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio
The conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio

The conversion of Saint Paul is an oil on canvas painting by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known by the nickname Caravaggio, around 1600 or 1601. The work shows the main characteristics of this author, that is to say both tenebrism as the naturalism of mystical scenes; Caravaggio has gone down in history for creating a new style that, far from the classicist forms of the Renaissance, connects with the theatricality of the Baroque.

The Conversion of Saint Paul sur la route de Damas (1600.1601) oil on canvas 230x175) Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

On this occasion we find ourselves before a large-format canvas –the piece is about two meters high by almost two meters wide- commissioned by the church of Santa María del Popolo in Rome. Together with a Crucifixion of Saint Peter, this canvas had to complete the iconographic program of one of the temple's private chapels; The two works were interpreted by the artist from a new perspective, more naturalistic than mystical, which did not please his clients and cost him a good number of critics.

One of the most poetic scenes of Christianity, the conversion of Saul, Caravaggio has reinterpreted it in a realistic tone that has nothing mystical or religious about it: in his writings Saint Paul recounts as he himself was a handsome soldier who continually persecuted Christians. One day when he went with hisservant through the forest a beam of divine light knocked him off his horse asking him why he was chasing him. Saul was blind until a group of Christians took pity on him and took care of him; From that moment on, the young soldier converted to Christianity, going down in history as Saint Paul.

The Baroque artist's painting depicts Saul lying on the ground with his arms up and his legs outstretched. His body extended in a powerful foreshortening occupies a large part of the entire composition. Marking a deep diagonal, the artist has arranged the horse that seems to turn around to observe its downed owner; the musculature of the animal has been extensively studied by the artist and in it a high-quality work can be seen molding the shapes through light and shadow. Completing the scene appears Saul's servant whose face we can barely see hidden behind the horse.

The composition appears constrained in a small space, the figures are too big for the frame that the artist has arranged and they barely fit into the composition. The lighting treatment is typical of Caravaggio, a gloomy light that focuses on the protagonist of the canvas and leaves the rest of the composition plunged into darkness.

Despite the criticism and the apparent vulgarity with which the artist has treated the conversion of Saint Paul, certain elements of mysticism can be observed, thus in the center of the work the artist has reserved an empty space where the protagonist is the divine light. On his side young Saul appears withhis eyes closed from the blow but his face shows no fainting but is plunged into a state of serene and pleasant ecstasy.

Popular topic