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 work by Caravaggio, painted in 1601 for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio depicting the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. On the altar between the two is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci.


The two lateral paintings of the Cerasi Chapel were commissioned in September 1600 by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, Treasurer-General to Pope Clement VIII who purchased the chapel from the Augustinian friars on 8 July 1600 and entrusted Carlo Maderno to rebuild the small edifice in Baroque style.[1] The contract for the altarpiece with Carracci has not been preserved but it is generally assumed that the document had been signed somewhat earlier, and Caravaggio had to take into consideration the other artist's work and the overall iconographic programme of the chapel.[2]

Although much has been said about the supposed rivalry between the painters, there is no historical evidence about any serious tensions. Both were successful and sought-after artists in Rome. Caravaggio gained the Cerasi commission right after his celebrated works in the Contarelli Chapel had been finished, and Carracci was busy creating his great fresco cycle in the Palazzo Farnese. In these circumstances there was little reason for them to regard each other as business rivals, states Denis Mahon.[3]

The contract signed on 24 September 1600 stipulates that "the distinguished painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio" will paint two large cypress panels, ten palms high and eight palms wide, representing the conversion of Saint Paul and the martyrdom of Saint Peter within eight months for the price of 400 scudi. The contract gave a free hand to the painter to choose the figures, persons and ornaments depicted in the way as he saw fit, "to the satisfaction however of his Lordship", and he was also obliged to submit preparatory studies before the execution of the paintings. Caravaggio received 50 scudi as advance payment from the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani with the rest earmarked to be paid on completion. The dimensions specified for the panels are virtually the same as the size of the existing canvasses.[4]

When Tiberio Cerasi died on 3 May 1601 Caravaggio was still working on the paintings as attested by an avviso dated 5 May mentioned that the chapel was being decorated by the hand of the "famosissimo Pittore", Michelangelo da Caravaggio. A second avviso dated 2 June proves that Caravaggio was still at work on the paintings a month later. He completed them sometime before 10 November when he received the final instalment from the heirs of Tiberio Cerasi, the Fathers of the Ospedale della Consolazione.[5] The total compensation for the paintings was reduced to 300 scudi for unknown reasons.[6]

The paintings were finally installed in the chapel on 1 May 1605 by the woodworker Bartolomeo who received four scudi and fifty baiocchi from the Ospedale for his work.[7]

The Odescalchi Balbi version of the painting

The first version

Giovanni Baglione in his 1642 biography about Caravaggio reports that the first versions of both paintings were rejected:

"The panels at first had been painted in a different style, but because they did not please the patron, Cardinal Sannesio took them; in their place he painted the two oil paintings that can be seen there today, since he did not use any other medium. And - so to speak - Fortune and Fame carried him along."[8]

This report is the only historical source for the well-known story. Although the biography was written decades after the events, its veracity is generally accepted. Baglione provided no further explanation about the reasons and circumstances of the rejection but modern scholarship has put forward several theories and conjectures. The first versions of the paintings were obviously acquired by Giacomo Sannesio, secretary of the Sacra Consulta and an avid collector of art. The first Conversion of Saint Paul ended up in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection. It is a much brighter and more Mannerist canvas, with an angel-sustained Jesus reaching down towards a blinded Paul.


The conversion of Paul from persecutor to apostle is a well-known biblical story. According to the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Pharisee, who intensely persecuted the followers of Jesus, even participating in the stoning of Stephen. He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest the Christians of the city.

As he went he drew near Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" He said, “Who are You, Lord?” The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”[9]

Saul is almost embracing his vision

The painting depicts this moment recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, when Saul fell off his horse on the road to Damascus, seeing a blinding light and hearing the voice of Jesus. For Saul this is a moment of intense religious ecstasy: he is lying on the ground, supine, eyes shut, with his legs spread and his arms raised upward as if embracing his vision. The saint is young and muscular, his garment looks like a Renaissance version of the Roman soldier's attire: orange and green muscle cuirass, pteruges, tunic and boots. His plumed helmet fell of his head and his sword is lying by his side. The red cape almost looks like a blanket under his body. The horse is passing over him led by an old groom, who points his finger at the ground. He had calmed down the animal, and now prevents it treading upon Saul. The huge steed has a mottled brown and cream fur; it is still foaming at the mouth and its hoof is hanging in the air.

The scene is lit by a strong light but the three figures are engulfed by an almost impenetrable darkness. A few faint rays on the right evoke Jesus' epiphany but these are not the real source of the lighting, and the groom remains seemingly oblivious to the presence of the divine. Because the skewbald horse is unsaddled, it is suggested that the scene takes place in a stable instead of an open landscape.[10]


Taddeo Zuccari's Conversion of Saint Paul in the Church of San Marcello al Corso

A well-established iconographic tradition stipulated how the Conversion of Paul should be depicted in Renaissance and Baroque art. Its characteristic elements were a rearing, panicked horse - although there is no mention of a horse in the Bible -, Saul lying on the ground, Jesus appearing in the sky and a retinue of soldiers reacting to the events. This is how Taddeo Zuccari, one of the most renowned painters in Caravaggio's Rome, portrayed the scene on a large altarpiece in the Church of San Marcello al Corso around 1560. The figure of Paul in the Cerasi Conversion was derived from a model by Raphael via Zuccari.[11] Raphael's version was part of his series of tapestries created for the Sistine Chapel in 1515-16.

"If we could turn Raphael's Saint Paul in such a way that his head would touch the lower frame and the length of his body would be directed more or less orthogonally inward, we would have a figure similar to that in Caravaggio's paiting", observed Walter Friedlaender.[12]

According to Denis Mahon, the two paintings in the Cerasi Chapel form "a closely-knit group of sufficiently clear character" with The Inspiration of Saint Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel and The Entombment of Christ in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. He called these four works "the middle group" and stated that they belong to Caravaggio's mature period. Comparing the two paintings in the Cerasi Chapel, Mahon saw the Conversion of Saint Paul "much more animated than its companion". This is conveyed solely by the ingenious use of the light because Caravaggio eschewed any but the slightest movements. This way he rendered "the scene unclear, mysterious and therefore curiously mouvementé."

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.[13] 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.[13] 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.


  1. ^ Hibbard, Howard (1983). Caravaggio. Westview Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-06-430128-1.
  2. ^ Denis Mahon: Egregius in Urbe Pictor: Caravaggio revised, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 580 (Jul., 1951), p. 226
  3. ^ Denis Mahon op. cit. p. 230
  4. ^ Walter F. Friedlaender: Caravaggio Studies, Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 302-303
  5. ^ Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Two "Avvisi", Caravaggio, and Giulio Mancini, in: Source: Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Spring 1993), pp. 22, 25.
  6. ^ Stefania Macioce: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: fonti e documenti 1532-1724, Ugo Bozzi, 2003, doc. 116., p. 106
  7. ^ Stefania Macioce, op. cit., p. 161
  8. ^ Giovanni Baglione: The Life of Michelagnolo da Caravaggio, in Giulio Mancini, Giovanni Baglione, Giovanni Pietro Bellori: Lives of Caravaggio, Pallas Athene, 2005
  9. ^ Acts of the Apostles 9:3-5, Modern English Version [1]
  10. ^ For example by Ann Sutherland Harris: Seventeenth-century Art and Architecture, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2005, p. 43; or Francesca Marini: Caravaggio and Europe, Random House Inc, 2006, p. 112
  11. ^ Lorenzo Pericolo: Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative Dislocating the Istoria in Early Modern Painting, Harvey Miller Publishers, 2011, p. 257
  12. ^ Walter Friedlaender:Caravaggio Studies, Schocken Books, 1969, p. 21
  13. ^ a b Kitson, Michael, The Complete Paintings of Caravaggio. Italy: Rizzoli Editore, 1967

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