Caravaggio: Conversion of Saint Paul

Michelangelo Merisi (1573-1610), better known as Caravaggio, had a huge influence on Italian painting during the seventeenth century. Although his outspoken disdain for the classical masters (which was often only spoken, not real since his works do exhibit classical characteristics) drew a lot of bitter criticism from critics and other painters alike, Caravaggio still continued to receive a lot of commissions for private and public purposes. Caravaggio’s style encompasses naturalism often injected into religious topics, unidealized figures, and most of all dramatic lighting (his is best known for his effective and masterful use of tenebrism, the extreme use of lights and darks for dramatic effect). Caravaggio greatly influenced later artists, from Italy and elsewhere.

One painting that is characteristic of his style is Conversion of Saint Paul.

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul, 1601

Caravaggio painted the Conversion of Saint Paul for the Cerasi Chapel in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio depicted Saint Paul at the moment of his conversion, lying on his back with his hands thrown up in the air and his eyes closed. The old hostler in the background seems not to notice, as his is preoccupied with the horse, and not focused on Paul. This painting in very different from other paintings of religious scenes. A viewer who has never seen this painting before might easily mistake the scene for a simple accident at a stable. Because of this, Caravaggio has often been criticized for the ordinariness of his religious depictions.

Caravaggio also applied different formal devices to enhance this religious scene. His use of perspective and chiaroscuro brings the viewer close to the scene, making the viewer feel as if he/she were a part of it. To make the viewer feel even closer to Paul, this painting hangs at eye-level in the chapel.

Caravaggio has been called sordid, grotesque, and violent. Caravaggio has also been called brilliant and genius. But one thing is for sure: he mastered Baroque painting and had a tremendous influence on artists, especially painters, who followed.

*For more on Caravaggio and his significance as an artist, below is an episode about him from an Art History series called The Power Of Art.


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