Looking At A Masterpiece: St. Paul’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus

Toward the end of the year of St. Paul we look at this masterpiece (1601)by Caravaggio. At first it may seem odd to see Saul from this perspective, turned away from us, on his back. Also, why the prominence of the horse, which seems somewhat bewildered by what has happened? In the Psalms, the horse is symbolic of strength and power (c.f. 33:17;147:10). We say “riding on a high horse,” meaning in an attitude of pride. Jesus is never pictured on a horse, only on a donkey. But the young Saul, here in rich clothing, was in a state of complete self-assurance in his own righteousness, as well as of blind arrogance and fanatic zeal. So he had to be struck down from his horse.

Why this upside-down perspective of Saul? Because in an instant his world had been turned upside down. All he had lived for and was zealous for turned not only to ashes, but was seen in its truth as wicked. Conversion is depicted here as a total inversion, as a reverse, at antipodes with one’s perspective worldview.

St. Paul on the way to Damascus Caravaggio

A miracle of grace happens here, one of vast consequence for the history of Christianity. A shaft of “light from heaven” (Acts 9:3) causes instant blindness. Caravaggio gives this powerful sense of light in darkness, a glowing light that is mysterious, unfathomable and beautiful, like the light of eternity. He focuses with intense concentration on this intimate moment to the exclusion of all else. Saul is not reclining, as in other paintings on the subject, but utterly prostrate, shattered, humbled to the very ground, all his strength gone, his sword thrown down. Struck blind, he needed to undergo the death of the senses in order to see the new supernatural light. On the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict said conversion is “always letting ourselves be formed by Christ; it is death and resurrection.”

Saul hears the voice calling him: “Saul, Saul” (Acts 9:4). Being called by his name must have pierced him to the heart. It is a key which opens the door of the heart to recognizing Christ, as it did for Mary Magdalene in the garden (Jn. 20:16). Then Jesus reveals Himself: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). In this painting Saul’s face is rapt in love, his arms reaching up in an ecstasy of longing for his new-found Lord, as well as in helplessness toward his Savior.

That grace ignited such a fire in his soul that later he wrote:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . .For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom.8:35, 39)

Associated PDF File:
This article is available as a PDF download

You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this
PDF file