On Caravaggioâ??s â??Conversion of Saulâ?? and the Catholic Imagination by G. E. Schwartz
Often when I encounter a work of art – an experience powerful almost beyond words – I approach the work in a slow contemplative way, almost like a prayer. Such an approach enables me to deeply experience the word of God. It becomes a means of union with God. A great work can empower me to discover authentic meaning in my daily life and its underlying spirituality. When this happens I discern an ability to offer more of myself and my relationship to the Father, and to accept the embrace that God is continuously extending to me in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
I entered the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome on an unseasonably cool morning in October 2009 and, walking toward the Cerasi Chapel, to the left of the apse, I came directly to the horizontal gesture of Annibale Carracci’s “Assumption of the Virgin,” arms outstretched as she ascends heavenward. But, as I continued on, the bold canvasses on the side walls asserted themselves.
Their diagonal compositions were severely compressed by the chapel’s narrow space, but I was soon struck by how Michelangelo Merisi – known to us as Caravaggio – related his paintings to each other and to the chapel as a whole. They framed and extended the Virgin’s gesture, plotting that tight space while calling my undivided attention all for themselves. The strong anatomy of the cast of characters was carefully detailed; sturdy bodies were lit against ambiguous voids. Caravaggio’s suggestion of our human form was wholly of this world, but floods of supernatural light – cinematic effects, centuries before the invention of Klieg lights and spot-lights and colored gels – made his nakedly brutal dramas among the most unnerving, compelling images in the entire history of art – indeed, in the entire history of our faith.
And there I was before the “Conversion of Saul,” as told in the Book of Acts (Chapter 9). The Apostle Paul recounts that early in his life, when he was known as Saul and had persecuted Christians, while travelling with his companions from Damascus, he was dazzled and felled by “light from heaven above, the brightness of the sun.” Blinded, Saul heard Jesus call him to account for his past sins and telling him that he had been chosen as His disciple.
The painted scene before me was a masterpiece of economy, the conversion moment described in Acts embodied only by Saul, his steed, and a half-concealed elderly groom – all three pressed into a small space. I sensed I could enter into that scene: the proud, happy Saul, a young soldier in armor, fallen from his mount, sprawls on his back. Perhaps in not as dramatic a way, many of us find ourselves in just such a position. I once did. Saul faces away from me, with all that miraculous light illuminating his chest more than his features. I am excluded, relegated to shadow, but still allowed to bear witness. Saul’s arms reach up and outward, touching the light (echoing that wide version of Carracci’s Virgin which I had described earlier).
In the painting, Saul spills toward the corner of the canvass – toward me – oblivious of the massive horse that all but fills the painting, just as the groom is oblivious to Saul’s conversion. That my sightline, from the center of the chapel, is on the axis with Saul’s fallen body only serves to intensify everything as it unfolds – not in some fictional painted space (this, after all, is not a museum, but a church) – but in a sanctified environment, defined by pools of darkness and shafts of light. The absorbed Saul, becoming Paul, the thick-bodied horse, and the bald-headed groom at the edge of space – all of them became a part of my holy encounter.
When I first beheld the painting that October day, I was drawn by the contrast between the flat diagonal of Saul’s chest, the bulge of the horse’s belly above him, and the counter-diagonal of the horse’s body, thrust into the frame of the painting. This combination of inexorableness and instinct in Caravaggio’s control of implicitly geometric forms was breath-taking; he was the first to employ the sphere, the cone and the cylinder in nature and it led me into the painting psychically until it lifted me spiritually.
Then, suddenly, I saw the great white shape of the horse’s massive shoulder and foreleg announce itself as a sort of lightning bolt, poised as it was above the enraptured Saul. In the guise of naturalism, Caravaggio gave me a stunning visual metaphor for conversion. Miraculous enlightenment is symbolized by apparently everyday experience, so subtly that only if I spend a long time within this sublime scene do I begin to unlock its secrets.
As I reflect on my own conversion, the historic encounter with Christ divided Saul’s (Paul’s) life in two; it changed the meaning and value of everything. Like this man, I had my earlier reasons for confidence and pride – I worked for the speaker of a state assembly even as Saul, now Paul, belonged to the elect people, the Pharisees. In our respective ways, in our respective times, Paul and I were observant of the Law and irreproachable. Then we were suddenly lost, had become the lowest of the low “because of… Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
Like Paul, I do not say “Our Lord” but “my” Lord. With my conversion, a personal relationship had been established between me and Jesus. Paul, there, struggling on the ground, reminds me that the surpassing value of knowing Jesus is the highest, most necessary and most beatifying kind of knowing possible. “Christ Jesus has made me his own (had taken hold of me)” (Philippians 3:12).
As portrayed by Caravaggio, Paul confirmed in me everything that his words to the Philippians had confirmed. And Caravaggio’s capturing of Paul at the very instant of his conversion became for me that day in October 2009 a silent prayer, one I understood both as a dialogue with God, and one that was then and still is a loving conversation with the One who has brought me into His embrace. It was a radical conversion and remains a prayer offered to God by parts of myself that I had not previously believed God wanted.
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