Conversion on the Way to Damascus

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The Conversion on the Way to Damascus
Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1).jpg
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions230 cm × 175 cm (91 in × 69 in)
LocationSanta Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Conversione di San Paolo) is a masterpiece by Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. 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. He heard the Lord say "I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city" (see Conversion of Paul). The Golden Legend, a compilation of medieval interpretations of biblical events, may have framed the event for Caravaggio.The Conversion of Paul depicts a moment of intense religious ecstasy. This scene shows the very moment Paul is overcome with the spirit of Jesus Christ and has been flung off of his horse.

Caravaggio's first version of the Conversion painting is in the collection of Principe Guido Odescalchi. It is a much brighter and more Mannerist canvas, with an angel-sustained Jesus reaching downwards towards a blinded Paul.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Lombardy, Italy and lived from September 1571 to July 1610. He was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1593 and 1610. Caravaggio introduced a powerfully frank realism with the use of dramatic lighting to Italian Baroque Art. When Caravaggio first moved to Rome in 1592, he began his career as a specialist painter of still lifes, mostly fruits and vegetables. He continued his artistic career by painting for a small circle associated with the household of art patron, Cardinal del Monte. Starting in 1600, Caravaggio had earned fame in the city of Rome. With the help of the Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio was contracted to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. From this commission, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew, delivered in 1600, were an immediate sensation. But Caravaggio was not able to bask in his fame for long, because he was exiled to Naples in 1606. Caravaggio earned fame in both Naples and Sicily after being exiled. But, with another strange sequence of events Caravaggio’s death, in the summer of 1610, was announced by an anonymous letter.


Most of Caravaggio’s paintings after 1600 were related to religion. But as seen with the Conversion of Saint Paul, his religious paintings received very different reactions. His style of tenebrism, where forms in paintings emerge from a dark background with usually one point of breaking light, may have been the influence of the preachings of Filippo Neri. Neri was a Counter Reformation priest who tried to explain the Bible by making the subjects more understandable and meaningful. He does this by including members of the lowest class of society, so as to appeal to the majority. This idea of striving to make the characters of the Bible more meaningful pushed Caravaggio to use dramatic effects like tenebrism to make the characters more theatrical.

In The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio focuses on St. Paul’s internal involvement with this moment of religious ecstasy, by creating a dark and mysterious background. Although the viewer does not see a heavenly apparition, the scene can be easily identified as St. Paul’s conversion because of the emotions, that are intensified by the lighting, shown by the apostle.

In this specific painting, Caravaggio uses not only dramatic lighting but the placement of the characters to intensify the moment of conversion. St. Paul, the main character, is flung off of his horse and is seen on his back, on the ground. Although Paul reflects the most light out of all the characters, the attention is given to him in a strange way. Because Paul is on the ground, he is much smaller than the horse, which is also at the center of the painting. Paul’s body is foreshortened, and is not facing the viewer, and yet his presence is the most powerful because of his body pushing into the viewer's space.[1] Out the three characters in the painting - the horse, the groom, and Paul - Paul is the only one really pushing into the space of the viewer.

What is more interesting, is the aloof and unknowing postures of the groom and the horse. As Paul is on the ground with his arms thrown into the air, the groom and the horse don’t seem to notice. Along with this contrast of emotions, the leg and position of the horse creates even more visual tension.[1] The horse, while taking up a lot of room on the painting, gives another layer of tension with the position of his front leg. Strangely pointed out towards the viewer, with the use of heavy foreshortening, this almost 3-D representation of the hoof shows more imbalance and tension.

The chapel[edit]

Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio painting (1600) depicting the inverted Crucifixion of St. Peter. On the altar, is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci. The dome frescoes are by one of Carracci's apprentices, under his design. The chapel was painted for Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, who died in 1601 and had been treasurer general under Clement VIII. The commission for Caravaggio (and perhaps Carracci) was apparently secured by his newly acquired patron, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani.

Biblical reference[edit]

The conversion of Paul from persecutor to apostle is a biblical story from the New Testament. According to the account in the book of Acts, Paul, before his conversion, was a "zealous" Pharisee, who took part in persecuting the followers of Jesus- even participating in the stoning of Stephen.[2] After his conversion, Paul becomes an apostle.


  1. ^ a b Kitson, Michael, The Complete Paintings of Caravaggio. Italy: Rizzoli Editore, 1967
  2. ^ Stokstadm Marilyn and Cothern Michael, Art History: Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc. 2011, 2008, 2005.

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