Friday, February 8, 2008
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo), by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome.
Acts 9 1-6
"Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letter to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do."
"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." . . .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." (Wikipedia)
I loved studying Caravaggio in my Art 100 class in college. "The Conversion" is one of my all time favorites. I love the power that is conveyed by the perspective in this painting. Rather than focus on the subject of the painting, a giant muscular horse fills most of the space. As viewers, we have a sense of the great height that Saint Paul has been cast down, and his humility in the face of an overwhelming vision of truth.
Saint Paul is a good saint for me to pray to during the unique trials of being a convert. Saint Peter is more like a “cradle Catholic.” He had the blessings of his father to leave the fishing business to follow Jesus. Saint Peter got to take his brother Andrew with him on his journey.
In contrast, Saint Paul had to make a dramatic turn-around alone. He left old friends and familiar religious routines behind over-night. His greeting into the new Christian church was apprehensive at best. When I struggle to explain my complete change of heart, my stricter Lenten fasts, my desire for yet another baby, it helps me to remember Saint Paul. I pray for his help, his humility, his certainty that the true “Way” is worth any sacrifice.
Saint Paul, pray for us Catholics. Help us convert our hearts and follow the Way.