Caravaggio - VM - Nigel Halliday
Caravaggio: The Conversion of Saul
The Footprints of Jesus
by Nigel Halliday
How are the mighty fallen! Saul, breathing murderous threats, full of self-importance thanks to his powerful backers in
Before the middle of the 16th century this was the main thrust of images of the conversion of Saul – a proud man humbled. The horse is there to emphasise the fall: the rider has lost his seat. How humiliating!
And that, of course, could have been the dramatic theme for Caravaggio. Certainly, there is Saul flat on his back. He is dressed as a warrior, bent on violence. He has dropped his sword and is groping upwards blindly, hands open, defenceless. In fact, Caravaggio emphasises Saul’s helplessness. Previously artists had shown Saul trying to get up again, but here he is prostrate and entirely vulnerable.
But Caravaggio, like Michelangelo in his version of this scene painted some 60 years earlier for the Pauline Chapel in the
Caravaggio’s image is even more focused than Michelangelo’s, stripping out all possible distractions like the appearance of Jesus in the sky, the frightened horse bolting away and the startled melee of Paul’s entourage crowding round him. There are no unnecessary props, hardly any foreground, no background. Like a piece of theatre he grabs our attention by filling the stage with a few huge, highly realistic figures, arrestingly arranged and, in Saul’s case, dramatically foreshortened, using light to direct our attention.
Above Saul the elderly servant is taking charge of the horse. According to Acts 9 those with Saul heard a noise, but had no understanding of what was happening to him. So the servant blends in behind the horse as a bystander. See how the servant’s two legs echo the horse’s front left leg. His face is in shadow as he is excluded from the drama that has overtaken Saul.
The light falls partly on Saul. Like Michelangelo Caravaggio uses the metaphor of light from heaven to indicate the private communication that is going on. Jesus speaks directly to Paul. There is a sense that the painting has frozen a moment in time. Paul’s moment of realisation that his efforts have been terribly misdirected. The moment when his life and with it the work of the gospel and the shape of human society across the whole world will change.
But the light also falls strikingly on the other leading player – the horse. Why is the horse so important? He is huge, filling two thirds of the canvas. He is clearly not there just as a prop to emphasise Saul’s fall from human pride. The light catches his flank and he is beautifully painted – Caravaggio’s realism at its best. Writers often comment that the horse is oblivious to what is happening, just a dumb animal. But that would mean that Caravaggio has devoted a huge amount of brilliant painting to a subject that is peripheral to the action.
To me what is most striking about the horse is how careful it is not to harm Saul. The horse’s eye is clearly on the prostrate figure. The horse is posed with its front right hoof raised and twisted out towards the viewer as if it is being specially careful about where it is going to put it. Indeed, if you draw in the diagonals of the painting, it is the hoof that is the centre of the painting.
The horse seems to stand there as a metaphor for the power of God. This animal with a strong will and immense power has the potential to inflict serious injury on the fallen figure. But in fact it is behaving with great gentleness, care and indeed compassion.
There is implied violence in this scene and yet, we are being told, no one will be hurt. Saul will regain his sight in a few days’ time and he will be set on a new and wonderful road, preaching peace instead of violence, love instead of religious hatred, reconciliation for the whole world.
God deals with us sometimes in shocking, sudden, even brutal ways. But always his purposes are to do us good and to do good through us. Like the horse here God is mighty and scary, but very careful where he treads. He never crushes us. On the contrary, he raises us up to new beginnings.
Caravaggio: The Conversion of Saul, 1601, oil on canvas, 230 x
Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in
Nigel Halliday is a freelance teacher and writer in the history of art, and one of the leaders of Hope Church, Greatham, in the UK. www.nigelhalliday.org
ArtWay Visual Meditation September 22, 2013