"The Conversion of St. Paul"

Conversion of St. Paul.B.21
Acts 26:9-21
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Today we celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul, the namesake of our parish. In the first reading for this morning, Paul, speaking to King Agrippa, tells us the story of his undoing and remaking.

It’s a wonderfully dramatic account, and lends itself well towards a depiction in art. Today, I would like to do something a bit different. I invite you to enter into this moment in the life of St. Paul as depicted by the artist Caravaggio in his painting “The Conversion of St. Paul”. By taking a closer look at the painting, I hope you will also sense something about the grace of this experience of conversion.

First, a bit of background about Michelangelo Merisi, better known to us as Caravaggio. His life was as dramatic as his paintings. Born in Caravaggio, Italy in 1571, he was orphaned at age 11 and apprenticed with a painter in Milan. At the age of 21 this brilliant young painter moved to Rome where he proceeded to make a splash on the art scene. His innovative and compelling style made him a celebrity, but not without controversy.

Caravaggio spoke of the classical masters with disdain, and he favored a style of naturalism which he used to depict religious topics. His figures were unidealized--natural. Look at our painting for today. If you didn’t know better, you might simply mistake this moment of religious conversion for an accident in a stable. It’s because of this, that Caravaggio was often criticized for the ordinariness of his religious depictions—and frequently, his paintings underwent revision at the advice of patrons. Others considered his painting to be vulgar, grotesque and violent. Yet, the popularity of Caravaggio was such, that even if a patron demanded a revision of the painting, there were plenty of collectors waiting in the wings to snatch up what might have been rejected.

Blessed with great talent, Caravaggio was also bedeviled by a violent temper. He was arrested repeatedly for his rough behavior. In 1606 Caravaggio’s temper went a step too far. An argument escalated into a swordfight which ended in the death of his opponent. Caravaggio left Rome and headed for Naples and then on to Malta, confident that with his celebrity, and influential patrons in Rome, he would receive a pardon from the authorities. He was right. With a pardon secured, he chose to return. However, on his way back to the Eternal City, Caravaggio fell ill (perhaps with malaria) and a few days later, alone and feverish, he died at the comparatively young age of 38.

Caravaggio’s paintings employed the technique of tenebrism (a word from the Italian “tenebroso” which means “dark, gloomy, mysterious”) and refers to a style of painting which depicts dramatic illumination. You see it rendered beautifully in today’s painting—notice all of the dark shadows. Another technique Caravaggio used was that of perspective. His paintings draw the viewer into the scene.

Now, about our painting for today. Before the middle of the 16th century the main thrust of images of the conversion of St. Paul were that of a proud man humbled. The horse would have been there to emphasize the fall. The rider has lost his seat. How humiliating.

But there is something qualitatively different about Caravaggio’s rendering of this event. While what we see here is Saul, flat on his back, what Caravaggio is emphasizing is quite different than simply a moment of humiliation. This is a conversion—an illumination. Look, at Saul, dressed as a warrior, bent on violence. He has dropped his sword and is groping upwards blindly, hands wide open. He is utterly defenseless. In fact, what Caravaggio is doing here is emphasizing Saul’s helplessness. Previously, artists had shown Saul trying to get up again, but here he is prostrate and entirely vulnerable.

The focus of this painting is not pride and humiliation, but the spiritual reality of what is occurring. This painting depicts a moment of illumination. Caravaggio, here, is depicting the spiritual reality of what is happening to Saul. This is a painting about the confrontation between Saul and the risen Christ.

Notice how Caravaggio has taken out anything in the painting that could have been a distraction. There’s no appearance of Jesus in the sky. The frightened horse is not bolting away and there is no evidence of Saul’s entourage crowding around him. All unnecessarily props have been eliminated. There is hardly any foreground and no background. All there is, is Saul, the horse, and an elderly servant, who is little more than a bystander. His face is in shadow as he is excluded from the drama that has overtaken Saul.

Look how the light falls on Saul. In his dramatic pose he actually intrudes into the viewer’s space, his arms outstretched in shock. His closed eyes and straight arms emphasize this moment of conversion. He is helpless. And as he lays on his back upon his cloak, we see a picture which, in some ways, echoes a baby lying on swaddling clothes. This, along with the horse and Paul’s physical depiction, confirms that what we are witnessing here is a spiritual rebirth.

Now, about the horse. It’s huge, filling fully two thirds of the canvas. Why is the horse so important in Caravaggio’s painting? Clearly, he’s not there simply as a prop to emphasize Saul’s fall from human pride. So, why is he there? Notice how the light catches the horse’s flank and how he is beautifully painted. This is Caravaggio’s realism at its best. Some art critics have commented that the horse is oblivious to what is happening, just a dumb animal. But, that would mean that Caravaggio devoted a huge amount of brilliant painting to a subject that is peripheral to the action. Nigel Halliday’s opinion seems more on-point to me. He writes: “…what is most striking about the horse is how careful it is not to harm Saul. The horse’s eye is clearly on the prostrate figure. The horse is posed with its front right hoof raised and twisted out toward the viewer as if it is being specially careful about where it is going to put it. Indeed, if you draw in the diagonals of the painting, it is the hoof that is the center of the painting.

“The horse seems to stand there as a metaphor for the power of God. This animal with a strong will and immense power has the potential to inflict serious injury and even death on the fallen figure. But in fact it is behaving with great gentleness, care and indeed, compassion.”

As we look at this scene, we know this. In a few days’ time Saul will become Paul, and he will set out on a new and wonderful journey, preaching peace and reconciliation instead of violence, division and religious hatred.

The painting is located in the chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, the place for which it was originally commissioned.

Interestingly, it hangs at eye level, making the viewer feel even closer to Paul.

We may not all experience a conversion as dramatic as that which befell the namesake of our Parish. Yet, I am convinced, in this season of Epiphany, a season of light, that we are all capable of receiving the blessing of the illumination of the divine. I hope that a closer look at this beautiful piece of art, also speaks to you of the hope and promise of Jesus Christ, the possibility of redemption and the grace of the Gospel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.