An Invitation To Conversion
Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is not only the most famous conversion story, but it is the paradigmatic story of conversion for the rest of the Christian tradition. So when a young Caravaggio was commissioned to paint this famous scene, it was no common commission. The year was 1600, and over three million pilgrims were pouring into Rome for the Jubilee year, feeling a strong sense of crisis as the Reformation’s fallout divided Christendom. Caravaggio’s painting was to hang in Santa Maria del Popolo on the northern side of Rome, the first church those pilgrims most affected by the Reformation would meet as they entered the city.
What is more, Caravaggio was portraying the conversion of the man who was seen by the reformers as their true leader and inspiration—St. Paul. Perhaps the painting’s location and subject was a subtle suggestion that as Saul persecuted the early Church and the anointed Messiah in a misguided zeal, the Protestant reformers were likewise persecuting the Catholic Church and the anointed Vicar of Christ, the Pope, with a blind zeal. Or, perhaps the scene was meant to stir renewal and conversion in the hearts of these Catholic pilgrims, which was the true aim of the Counter Reformation. Regardless, the choice of Paul’s conversion was no accident.
At first glance the viewer is struck by the small cast of characters in Caravaggio’s painting. There is only Saul, fallen upon the ground, his horse, and a groomsman whose balding head is cast ground-wards while he holds the reigns of the now riderless steed. Caravaggio has put on his artistic zoom lens, pulling us up into the scene. Indeed, Saul now spills out into our space, and his outstretched arms frame the tight scene. Darkness pervades the periphery of the scene, and it is hard to tell if we are meant to feel the blindness of Saul or the revelation of light that streams into the midst of the image.
Dominating the entire canvas is Saul’s steed, particularly his hindquarters. The horse looms large, and we feel, with Saul, the closeness of this unsettled beast, as its front leg is held in mid air, tense and ready to strike. The realism of Caravaggio, from the hindquarter of the horse to the furrowed brow of the groomsman, is missing in one key aspect however. You would expect a fallen rider to put his arms out to brace himself against the ground. Instead Saul’s arms stretch heavenward as he perceives a greater threat from above. Caravaggio’s Saul braces himself for the blinding light rather than the bruising ground.
The blind Saul sees something that no one in the painting, or its viewers, can see. His closed eyes invite the viewer to recall the dialogue of the familiar Scripture story. A bold artist indeed, Caravaggio shows us the scene in a way that invites us to look and listen. The inner story of Saul’s encounter with Christ requires a different kind of vision and hearing. As Paul himself would later say, “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). Saul will need a new kind of eyesight to grasp what he is being shown, which is why Paul will later pray that his disciples have the “eyes of [their] hearts enlightened” (Eph 1:18).
Indeed, the artist summons us who watch Saul spill out into our space, to not only hear God’s call for Saul to become Paul, but to listen for our own calling. Perhaps our anxiety that the horse’s coiled front leg may strike Saul comes from our deeper anxiety that God may strike us; that He might call us in the midst of our daily lives? Are we ready for the unexpected intervention of God? Perhaps the genius of Caravaggio is not in what he shows us, but the invitation his painting extends for us to respond to what we see.