road to Damascus

Conversion on the Way to Damascus

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo) is a masterpiece by Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio painting (1600) depicting the inverted Crucifixion of St. Peter. On the altar, is a luminous and crowded Carracci-Assumption of the Virgin Mary.jpg by Annibale Carracci. The dome frescoes are by one of Carracci's apprentices, under his design. The chapel was painted for Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, who died in 1601 and had been treasurer general under Clement VIII. The commission for Caravaggio (and perhaps Carracci) was apparently secured by his newly acquired patron, Marchese Vicenzo Guistiniani.

The painting depicts the moment recounted in Chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles when Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul, fell on the road to Damascus. He heard the Lord say "I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city." The Golden Legend, a compilation of medieval interpretations of biblical events may have framed the event for Caravaggio.

On this canvas, Saul is an epileptic and fractured figure, flattened by the divine flash, flinging his arms upward in a funnel. There are three figures in the painting. The commanding muscular horse dominates the canvas, yet it is oblivious to the divine light that defeated his rider's gravity. The aged groom is human, but gazes earthward, also ignorant of the moment of where God intervenes in human traffic. Only Saul, whose gravity and world has been overturned lies supine on the ground, but facing heaven, arms supplicating rescue. The groom can see his shuffling feet, and the horse can plod its hooves, measuring its steps; but both are blind to the miracle and way. They inhabit the unilluminated gloom of the upper canvas. Saul, physically blinded by the event for three days, suddenly sees the Christian message. For once, his soul can hear the voice of Jesus, asking, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" His sword and his youthful sinews are powerless against this illuminating bolt of faith.

This is not a pallid faith, Caravaggio has exterminated all the cherubim that infest the Virgin like flies in Carracci's adjacent Carracci-Assumption of the Virgin Mary.jpg. Carracci's altarpiece is a world of an ascendant and joyous faith, bathed in refulgent daylight colors. Caravaggio's world has fallen into dusk. This is not a myth with multitudes of demigods, but a stark life-sized world of one horse and two men. One man has crashed with and now feels crushed by the lit universe. Caravaggio is painting at his peak of control and in his most enduring style. (See the immediately preceding paintings for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi regarding St. Matthew, including The Calling of St. Matthew and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew.)

Caravaggio's first version of the Conversion painting is in the collection of Principe Guido Odescalchi. It is a much brighter and more Mannerist canvas, with an angel-sustained Jesus reaching downwards towards a blinded Paul.

Other paintings

Caravaggio, or his patron, would have known the Michelangelo frescoes (1542–45) in the Vatican Cappella Paolina when choosing how to represent this theme. However, the Caravaggio scene is far more stark than the confusing miracle melee of the Mannerist Michelangelo fresco (1542–45) While tighter in scope, Taddeo Zuccari's preparatory drawing (1560) for a fresco appears more like a polo accident than a miracle ; the completed painting in San Marcello al Corso (1563) is also a Mannerist contortion. One depiction, likely not have been available to Caravaggio, is the somewhat cartoonish painting by Lucas Cranach. Finally, the prostrate man's state and extended arms recall, but contrast, with the epileptic boy's trance in Raphael's final masterpiece of the Transfiguration found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

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