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Caravaggio's Conversion of St Paul

There aren’t too many artists more interesting than Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He was named for Michael the Archangel but his life hardly lived up to its angelic namesake. He was a complete sociopath. His stormy personality got him into frequent fisticuffs, including murder, and there’s good reason to believe he was a pimp. Just shy of 40 years old, he died a dramatic but lonely death and his grave is unmarked. It’s not even recorded in church records, in fact, because the local priest was on strike that summer. But for all that, he was a great painter and this is his Conversion of St Paul (1601), the second version he painted, actually, and one of my favorites in his oeuvre.

When looking at a painting of an event, it’s more interesting if you know a little about the event being portrayed. Then, on top of seeing all the colors and brushstrokes, you can think about how the artist used them to interpret the story. So in the New Testament, Saul, the future St Paul, zealously opposed followers of Jesus as Jewish heretics. But while on his way to arrest Christians in Damascus, Saul underwent a transformative experience. Knocked down by a sudden blast of light, he heard and conversed with the voice of Christ then was left blind for 3 days. Whatever specifically happened, Saul emerged from that encounter a very changed man.

If you were going to paint someone’s encounter with the divine, how would you approach it? Caravaggio drops us into the middle of the story: the light has already come out of nowhere and Saul has already fallen. He’s defenseless on the ground without sword or helmet and his horse nearly stepped on him. Since nothing much is happening in the scene, critics said he had painted history without action. I’ll concede the point, but that’s exactly what makes it work for me. The action is internalized, it’s all inside of Saul’s soul. When I look at the painting I don’t see what’s taking place as much as I feel what’s taking place. Caravaggio always used light and dark really well but it’s especially vivid here. Descending light wraps Saul up in the divine presence and symbolically extracts him from the surrounding darkness. But, and this is the really cool part, he raises his arms to the light not in a defensive or defiant posture, but an embracing one.

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