Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601)
Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601)
Name: Conversion on the way to Damascus
Widely regarded as one of the best artists of all time, Caravaggio is famous for introducing a revolutionary style of naturalism, which marked a complete break from Mannerism and outshone even the classicism of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). For more, see: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting (1600-1700). His masterpieces for the Contarelli Chapel helped him to secure additional commissions, like The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) for the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Within 5 years his religious paintings were regarded as the most exciting in Rome. His naturalist style should have been well suited to the needs of Catholic Counter-Reformation art - as laid down by the Council of Trent - but some of it was considered too vulgar by the more conservative church authorities, and rejected. But this had little effect on his reputation and any rejected works were invariably snapped by art collectors and other artists. Unfortunately his violent temperament led to a self-imposed exile for the last years of his life - see for instance Caravaggio in Naples (1607-10) - but despite his death at the age of only 38, "Caravaggism" lived on throughout the century, influencing some of the leading Italian Baroque artists, including Artemisia Gentileschi (15931656), as well as Old Masters like Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664).
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus was one of two paintings commissioned by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi (1544-1601), treasurer to Pope Clement VIII (reigned 1592-1605) for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. It is possible that the commission was secured for Caravaggio by his new patron, the Italian banker and art collector Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637). The other painting was the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. These works - both of which still hang in the chapel today - were second versions, as Caravaggio's first versions had been rejected. The first Conversion, now in the Odescalchi Collection, was a brighter Mannerist painting, - much more conventional than the second version.
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo) illustrates the scene - described in Acts of the Apostles (9:39) - when the pharisee Saul - a known persecutor of Christians who had participated in the stoning of Saint Stephen - was converted into a Christian after Christ appeared and spoke to him on the road to Damascus. This Damascene conversion, which duly led to him adopting the name Paul and becoming an apostle, was marked by a moment of intense religious ecstasy. Caravaggio's painting captures this moment, just after Saul has been flung off off his horse.
The scene is stripped of all distractions - with only a horse, groom and the fallen Paul present - and Caravaggio creates a mysteriously darkened background in order to focus attention on Paul's moment of religious ecstasy.
The principal actor lies in a dramatic pose in the foreground of the picture (he actually intrudes into the viewer's space), with his arms outstretched in shock. He has just seen a vision of Christ and has been blinded by a celestial light. The divine nature of his experience is evidenced by Saint Paul's closed eyes, stiff arms and his continued illumination from heaven.
Meantime, Paul's sword and cloak are tangible reminders of his former identity as Saul the persecutor of Christians. The cloak echoes the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus, and - along with the horse and Paul's helpless condition - confirms that we are witnessing a spiritual rebirth.
Curiously, neither the groom nor horse seem to notice Paul's spiritual awakening. The main contribution of the skewbald horse, which occupies more of the picture than anything else, is to contribute a sense of tension with its upturned hoof poised in mid-air as if about to strike the newly converted Paul, while the groom concentrates on holding the reins to prevent the horse trampling him.
As always, Caravaggio demonstrates his mastery of chiaroscuro - the shading used to lend volume to figures - as well as tenebrism, the dramatic use of shadow and light to focus the viewer's attention on key areas of the work. After his death, these painterly elements would become hallmarks of Caravaggism and inspire artists across Europe.
The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600) Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi.
The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600) Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi.
Supper at Emmaus (1601) National Gallery, London.
Death of the Virgin (1601-6) Louvre Museum, Paris.
The Entombment of Christ (1601-3) Vatican Museums, Vatican, Rome.
Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602) Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
For an explanation of other Baroque history paintings, see: Homepage.
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