(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

The Conversion of Saul

Fresco, 625 x 661 cm
Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

The conversion of Saul (St Paul) is the best-known and most widely represented of the Pauline themes (Acts 9:1-9). On the road to Damascus, where he was going to obtain authorization from the synagogue to arrest Christians, Paul was struck to the ground, blinded by a sudden light from heaven. The voice of God, heard also by Paul's attendants, as artists make clear, said, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' They led him to the city where, the voice had said, he would told what he had to do. According to a tradition, connected with the medieval Custom of representing pride as a falling horseman, Paul made the journey on horseback. He lies on the ground as if just thrown from his horse, prostrate with awe, or unconcious. He may be wearing Roman armour. Christ appeares in the heavens, perhaps with three angels. Paul's attendants run to help him or try to control the rearing horses.

In Michelangelo's fresco the composition shows great depth of feeling obtained by the use of light and darkness that foreshadows Rembrandt and testifies to the heroic virtuosity of the aged master. A focal line traverses the the painting, its progression at once reveals the meaning of the composition. Starting at the top left it flows diagonally, along the figure of Christ descending and a beam of light. It follows a figure with raised fingers and another, bent over the fallen Saul, and circumscribes the ellipse of this body. From his right leg it curves back and upward in the direction of a horse galloping in the background, and loses itself in the undulating contours of the mountains with a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem faintly outlined in their folds - unless we accept a more literal explanation and call it Damascus. Note that this line has the shape of a bishop's staff and sums up the whole incident in symbolic form: Saul destined to be shepherd and overseer of people. (The term 'bishop' means overseer.) The high-light on the head of Saul and on the horse's head confirms the symbolic meaning; the dim awarness of fallen man is touched by the lightning flash of grace, and as universal conciousness awakens in him, he loses his animal torpor and gains true knowledge.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
Guillaume Dufay: Aurea luce, hymn for the feast of Sts Peter and Paul