Caravaggio’s Road to Damascus
It’s the Year of Our Lord 34, and Saul is on his way to Damascus to persecute “the Way,” as Luke puts it in Acts 9. Then – all of a sudden – BOOM!
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
I imagine a force accompanying the flash of “light from heaven”: a kind of silent explosion, as of a vacuum suddenly created or vacated. In any case, it knocks Saul from his horse. The horse is a disputed detail, not found explicitly in the text and partly an artistic embellishment, although Christ does say to Saul, “get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Note: Get up.
To me, this is the most fascinating and epoch-making of all the Biblical stories of the apostolic era: no blinding light, no Apostle Paul. It’s a moment painted by many artists, including twice by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610): once in 1600 in The Conversion of Saint Paul (now in a private Roman villa, the Palazzo Odescalchi Balbi); and a year later in Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (in situ at the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, also in Rome).
It’s interesting to note that the Odescalchi Conversion was a reject and the Cerasi a second attempt to please the patron who’d refused the first. (This happened a number of times in Caravaggio’s career.)