Caravaggio – Conversion on the Way to Damascus

Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Exploring Art with Alessandro. Today we are going to have a lot of fun as usual when we talk about Caravaggio. In this journey together in fact we started learning how irreverent this crazy genius is. So, even here in a religious painting like the Conversion on the Way to Damascus, we can expect a lot of surprises.

That’s why we are going to analyze the main features, but also some of the details since they are going to reveal fundamental characteristics of this Baroque masterpiece.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus - Caravaggio
ARTIST Caravaggio
NAME Conversion on the Way to Damascus
LOCATION Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
YEAR 1601
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 230×175 cm (91 × 69 in)
MATERIAL Oil on canvas

The Story of the Conversion on the Way to Damascus

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo in Italian) was painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. Cerasi is the patron’s last name and he was pretty wealthy to be able to afford Caravaggio.

Anyway, long story short, the episode is a well-known biblical story with protagonist Paul, a Roman persecutor, who, on the road to Damascus, is struck down by a blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus. Paul decided to change his life becoming one of Jesus’ apostles. Caravaggio depicted the moment when Paul is living a religious ecstasy: he is lying on the ground, his eyes shut and his arms raised upward as if embracing his vision. Paul looks like a young soldier wearing a red muscle cuirass with green buckles. Red is also the cape that fell beneath his body and, in the shade, we can notice a first couple of important details: the sword and the helmet. Both a clear reference that he is a soldier.

Then there is a horse passing over Paul led by an old groom who seems to have just calmed down the animal that in fact is still foaming at the mouth.

Saint Paul under the horse

Now let’s stop for a moment imaging we don’t know the story and we have no idea what we are looking at. We are in front of the painting for the first time and what we see is a man under a horse. Actually, we first notice the horse since it fills most of the space and it is illuminated by the intense light and just after we see the man. We are captured by the vision of the man just in a second moment and because of the red cape that, at a first sight, seems almost blood on the ground. From this point of view we would think that the protagonist is the horse. And fun fact is that the Bible does not mention the presence of a horse in this story.

Moreover, that is a skewbald horse, in other words, not a purebred. So, Caravaggio painted one of the most important religious figures in the lower part of the painting, foreshortened and so he seems even smaller than the horse that is over him and, it’s not a detail, the horse is showing its butt to us. Once again Caravaggio’s irreverence is astonishing. But he was the greatest painter of his time, so even the Pope couldn’t say anything against him. And remember that this work of art was displayed inside a church…

The importance of the Light and chiaroscuro

The scene is lit by one single light source that seems to come from the top right where there are a few faint rays. Of course, that light represents Jesus. However, besides that, look the magic that Caravaggio is able to create. There is a deep dark background that amplifies the light effect that, shining down from the horse to Paul, pulls our view and, at the same time, creates a sense of depth and three-dimensionality in the work.

In The Calling of St Matthew post, click here if you missed it because it’s a very useful and amazing example, we learnt how Caravaggio skillfully and constantly plays with the light and dark contrast, called chiaroscuro.

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Baroque Painting
The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio

Chiaroscuro allows Caravaggio to create drama, volumes and drive messages/ideas. And that’s exactly what we have here: a dramatic and intense scene that we can read on Paul’s face, barely illuminated, but enough to see his expression. And look also at the groom’s face: it is barely illuminated as well, but enough to notice that he is looking at the horse and he doesn’t care at all about Paul… did you notice that? And that’s really weird, I mean a man just fell from a freaking horse, he is having a vision on the ground and you are not even curious?

And the horse fills a third of the canvas with its white and brown patches and it is the only one that at least looks at Paul, but it is showing its butt to the viewers, so us…

The meaning(s)

It’s clear that Caravaggio wanted to communicate something. We can read the scene in many different ways, and maybe this is a metaphor of how fragile we are, no matter how cool and strong we think to be, since a little episode can completely change our life. And then we find ourselves on the ground, under a skewbald horse that looks at us with pity.

So, can we talk about a protagonist in this work of art? Probably not. But for sure we can say that there are 4 actors involved. Each of them with specific roles: the groom, Paul, the horse and the light. Light also as a metaphor able to drive and give us hope even if we seem lost.

That’s why chiaroscuro is so important for Caravaggio and it is usually so intense that we talk about tenebrism. That creates a powerful emotional connection between the viewer and the work.

QUIZ

Can you find all the elements mentioned in this post? Use the interactive image below to learn more about this great work of art

Conclusion

And, one last point, we feel so involved of course because we cannot forget that Caravaggio has depicted the scene with a high degree of realism, capturing the details and textures of the figures. Just to give you some examples, look at the horse’s muscles and hair or even the leg veins, Paul’s arms and his shiny nails or the little beard or the groom’s wrinkles.

Once again we discovered the beauty of a magnificent masterpiece. Please remember to subscribe to the channel so you won’t miss the next episodes because, thanks to these great artists, there are still many surprises. Ciao

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