The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of St. Paul, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

It looks like a picture of a horse’s… well, of the back part of a horse. Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome puts the story’s equine character front and center. What gives? The practical joke of a roguish artist?

It has always seemed to me that, rogue though he might have been in so much of his life, Caravaggio possessed a profound religious sense, I’d even say a moving faith. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise, since, as today’s feast attests, the drama of conversion is at the heart of Christianity.

But still, why give the horse center stage? The reason, I suspect, is profound, the fruit of Caravaggio’s own spiritual struggles. As Acts 9 tells the story of Paul’s conversion, the one-time persecutor of Christians is knocked off his horse, blinded by a searing light, and hears the voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The men traveling with him hear the voice but see nothing. And so the real question is, do you have eyes to see?

The body language of Saul, fallen to the ground at the bottom of Caravaggio’s painting, shows that he sees the blinding glory of the Lord above him, and we… see only a horse. And so I think the painting forces us to ask ourselves, would we notice the Lord Jesus if he appeared? Or have we ignored the Lord when he’s tried to get our attention–and managed to stare right through the miraculous?

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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