The Conversion on the Way to Damascus

The 17th Century painting by Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, is a brilliant depiction of the monumental moment for Christianity.  Saint Paul lies on his back on the ground, below his horse.  Finely dressed as a soldier, the young man exudes strength and vigor.  His face is calm, his eyes are closed, and his muscular arms are extended heavenward, as if receiving a hug. 

Most noteworthy is the role of light in the scene.  Caravaggio is famous for chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and dark.  (For other examples of this method, see Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, or The Crucifixion of St. Peter, which is, by the way, located directly across from The Conversion in the same chapel in Rome...I spent many hours before these two paintings.)  Paul's face, chest, arms and hands are bathed in light.  The areas above the horse and on the ground, including Paul's sword and helmet, are darkened.  The body of the horse, from whence Saul came, is lightened as well. 

Art is educational and this piece, particularly with its chiaroscuro, is like a lesson.  Conversion comes about in the heart, not so much the head.  Once the heart is converted to Christ, the face will radiate the peace and calm emblematic of those in love with God.  Helmets and swords are not the tools to spread that love, but the arms, both in writing and hugging people, or showing charity.  Finally, we should never forget our life prior to conversion.  If Paul had not been a great sinner, he would not have been a great saint. 


back to top