Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Caravaggio 'Conversion of St. Paul'

Caravaggio, by name of Michelangelo Merisi, was an Italian painter whose revolutionary technique of tenebrism, or dramatic, selective illumination of form out of deep shadow, became a hallmark of Baroque painting. Scorning the traditional idealized interpretation of religious subjects, he took his models from the streets and painted them realistically. In 1600, Caravaggio signed a contract to paint two pictures for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. The church has a special interest because of the works it contains by four of the finest artists ever to work in Rome: Raphael, Carracci, Caravaggio and Bernini.

Of the two pictures in the chapel 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 (soon to be Paul the Apostle) 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 the author of Acts, Caravaggio makes religious experience look natural.

Technically the picture has defects. The horse, based on Dürer, 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. Bellori's view that the scene is 'entirely without action' misses the point. Like a composer who values silence, Caravaggio respects stillness.

with gratitude to Web Gallery of Art


Kelly Jo said...

I've always adored this painting flawed or not. The tangle of feet is realistic. The arrested movement always represented to me the feeling of the trance Paul was in; time and everything around him was suspended in that supernatural moment of calling and grace. Going to see this painting in person was one of my favorite "art memories" from my semester in Rome.

Filia Dei said...

My first time in Rome was also defined by my introduction to Caravagio: in my case an incredible Theology on Tap lecture which I (coincedentally) attended with a group of Christendom students I met there!

I don't think the commentary meant to imply that the picture was flawed so much as that what Caravagio was trying to express was something trancendent of his medium: a moment in which Eternity broke into time, and time and space, not to mention Paul, got a little squashed as a result of trying to deal with it.

Personally, I think the most important thing Caravagio, and all the famous people who have incongrously painted saints in historically inappropriate clothes and impossible postures, is that they are trying to show it's possible to be a saint and be ordinary! I think it's the same reason we have photographs of Terese and John Paul and Frassati now!

Kelly Jo said...

Good point!

PJ Brunet said...

Aren't all subjects "hemmed in" ?