Conversione di S. Paolo

I have written about Caravaggio’s La Conversione di S. Paolo images(Chiesa di S. Maria del Popolo, Roma) before (in The Mystery of Everyday Life, and ‘Falling’), but, in the light of the recent posts on failure, I have been rethinking my previous take on this painting. I happened to see it again at the same time as I was reading these posts.

My previous argument was that this image of S. Paul’s fall represented an in-between state of falling-and-rising. As evidence of the rising element I pointed to his ecstatic state, the play of dark and light characteristic of Caravaggio, the intertwining of blindness and sight, together with the title itself: a fall that is a conversion. I wonder now if I overemphasised a rising to the light.

So, many years on, here are some further thoughts on this wonderful painting. What I noticed last time I saw it was the calm of the horse and its handler, both leaning over, in a gesture of acceptance. The horse has a calm eye, turned kindly towards Saul-Paul. There is no sense of panic here, and, while there is a tangle of horse and human limbs (which itself draws our attention to the ground), the horse is being careful to not step on Paul. In short, the horse, and its handler, seem accepting of Paul’s grounded state. Paul has fallen.

I’d be interested to know what the authors of the failure posts make of this painting.


4 thoughts on “Conversione di S. Paolo

  1. Thanks Ann.

    The thing I notice is the way Paul looks in his own world. I assume that this is what you meant by ecstatic state, and that it is one form of his blindness.

    When I see the horse and handler, it seems to me that part of their sad acceptance is that Paul is still closed off this way. That he hasn’t bottomed out yet: isn’t available yet to them and others. Their patience suggests to me that they are being patient with the last of Paul’s self-absorption, knowing, more than he does, that there is more yet for him learn.

    I am trying to feel if there would be a difference in the way Paul is stretching out his hands and the way someone who accepted their blindness would do so. Paul’s seem to me to be aspirational, reaching out; but the long-term blind person would have more ‘give’, more softness, in their muscles and joints. They would be not just reaching for the world but ready to receive it.

    It’s interesting how poised between easy interpretations this painting is, isn’t it.

    1. thank you Andrew. I think that is right. It seems clear that Paul hasn’t hit bottom. (And, yes, his arms would be softer had he accepted his state.) Your observation that the acceptance of horse and handler is a sad realization of this helps. In Acts 9, when Saul arises, his eyes are open but he doesn’t see; he is blind for 3 days. All of this raises for me the question of the relation between acceptance of a fallen state, humility, and a call-response to ‘change one’s life’ (with Steiner in mind – what great art does).

  2. This is very interesting. I don’t know the painting or the biblical passages very well, but what I see in the image is certainly reaching, grasping and perhaps struggle from Paul. You are both right, he isn’t relaxed, and although he has fallen I don’t know if he knows that yet, or fully comprehends what it could mean. I’m not sure if I see sadness in the handler, but he does carry a sense of calm. He is both impassive and patient. It is as if his patient gesture of simply waiting says, don’t be in such a hurry to get up. If you do not allow yourself the time to feel your fallenness you will miss the experience and the insights it can offer. I like that it is the handler who conveys this wisdom. Who is he? What is his name. I could go now to my shelf and look it up, but it doesn’t matter. He is one who knows.
    I can’t help but wonder about the horse too. Ann, you would have a better sense of this. But could the handler’s patient calm, his acceptance of both Paul’s fallenness and his struggle against it, be wisdom learnt through a life lived with horses? That’s not quite right, but you might know what I am getting at.

    1. thank you Demelza. Here are some thoughts on the horse and handler. Typical of Caravaggio, both are ordinary, down-to-earth beings: there is nothing flashy about this horse, and our attention is drawn to the handler’s bare feet in the earth (NB the contrast with Paul’s armour, now spread on the ground). They are very much in ‘sync’ with each other; there is a connection between them. The handler is not using any restraint; both are soft; the lowered head of the horse points to a relaxed state, and, although he has his ear on Paul, he remains steady in what would be a frightening situation for a horse. This suggests to me that the relation between horse and handler is a holding relation – yes, as you suggest, they would learn from each other. I can imagine that when the blind Paul is ‘led by the hand’ into Damascus, it is this holding relation that holds him.

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