Light and Dark: Caravaggio’s “Paul”

Sometimes “old” art doesn’t have that wow! fresh! impact that “new” art can. Contemporary art is often designed to have shock value that can make old masters feel, well, sedate. I don’t feel that way about this one, though:

Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

Oh, and if you hadn’t deduced it already, this is a religious work, “The Conversion of Saint Paul.” Not too stuffy, eh? Carravaggio painted it in 1601 during a time when the Catholic church was trying to recover from the pains of the Protestant reformation. One way they attempted to reach people was by having more emotionally driven art. Instead of gilded saints posing piously with their symbols, the church began to commission artists to make paintings that were a bit more relatable, more emotionally available. Think of it as a seventeenth century rebranding campaign.

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

Caravaggio was not the best spokesperson for the church brand, however. He brawled. He drank. Goodness—records indicate he even murdered a man. But his religious paintings were, if I may say so, divine.

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

Well, divinely human. See, Caravaggio grew up in Lombardy, and part of his artistic training involved drawing things from nature. Crazy, huh? I mean, he would look at actual people to paint them, instead of just sculptures and paintings of previous generations! (note: sarcasm.) Today life drawing is expected in art school. In Italy leading up to Caravaggio’s day, copying was the norm. He was not interested in the norm.

An early art historian claimed that “when [Caravaggio] was shown the most famous statues of Phidias and Glykon in order that he might use them as models, his only answer was to point towards a crowd of people saying that nature had given him an abundance of masters. “

Dude was brash. And his work was shocking. Dirty fingernails? Heaven forbid! Using a prostitute as a model for the virgin Mary? Scandal!

Back to the subject at hand: St. Paul. Saul (with an S) was out to destroy the Christians. On his way to capture and imprison some of those troublemaker religious radicals in a nearby town, Saul was struck blind, heard Christ’s voice, and converted to Christianity. Oh, and he changed his name to Paul, regained his sight, and wrote half of the Bible’s new testament.

It seems the 15th and 16th century artists think Saul/Paul fell off his horse when he was blinded, though the actual text doesn’t mention a mount. Anyhow, here you can see how the story was depicted in illustrated manuscripts and paintings prior to ruffian Caravaggio’s day:

Most of these are a jumbled mess of men and beasts. Parmigiano’s version is closest in composition to Caravaggio’s, but for me, doesn’t have near the dramatic impact.

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

Caravaggio cropped his image to just include the main event. There are no extra hoards of men, or lovely distant landscapes, or miraculous heavens to distract from what is happening. The horse fills most of the frame. Saul has fallen on his back, lying dangerously close to the uneasy hooves. He doesn’t look at the horse, though, nor the man accompanying him attempting to sooth the animal. Saul’s blinded eyes are closed, but he turns his face and lifts his hands towards the light.detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

Ah, the light.

Caravaggio was particularly known for his use of light, namely, chirrascuro. Not sure what that is? it is what these images have in common, well lit passages surrounded by deep, dramatic shadows.

The artists included here are sometimes referred to as “Caravaggisti” or “Tenebrists” (tenebre means shadow in French), and they were all influenced by the hoodlum who painted such powerful religious works. The technique existed before Caravaggio, but he was the one who elevated it, who made it a style people demanded and artists imitated.

While chiaroscuro is a technique that adds dramatic flair, here it also signals the presence of holiness, the divine piercing its way into the world’s darkness and changing it. I love the light here. But what I think I love most is the effect of the horse. It could trample Saul. It could kill him. Yet, the light, the experience he is having is so intense he ignores the perilous position he is in.

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

The servant’s brow is furrowed as he tries to calm the horse. He is not focused on the miracle happening. He is too concerned with the immediate danger to contemplate the odd lighting and bodiless voice of Christ. He is dutifully doing his job, though it might be easier to just let the clumsy rider get crushed.

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus"

The spooked horse eyes his fallen rider, a bit suspiciously.

Caravaggio could paint. But he was deeply flawed. I imagine the Roman Catholic church officials eyed him a bit suspiciously, too.

Are you worried about the horse hooves, or distracted by the light? What do you think of this style of painting?

I highly recommend reading about Caravaggio’s tumultuous life

Also, check out this article “Caravaggio: how he influenced my art” with writing by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, photographer David LaChapelle (previously seen here) and others.


2 thoughts on “Light and Dark: Caravaggio’s “Paul”

  1. Pingback: How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (1): In the Piazza del Popolo: | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: #MeToo : History’s Heroines in Art and Life | Maine Musing

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