The conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

4:05 PM

The Conversion of the Way to Damascus - Caravaggio

A little bit of history

Date: 1601
Located in the church of Saint Maria del Poppolo, Rome, Italy

As the name says, the painting portrays the Biblical scene of Saint Paul’s conversion. Before his conversion, it was his job to persecute people who believed in Christ and he was on his way to the city of Damascus to do precisely that.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied." (Acts 9:3-5)

In the picture we see the shocked Paul fallen on the ground, his eyes closed due to the light coming from Heaven.

A little bit of technique

A lot of people see flaws in this picture, such as the horse being scrunched in the composition and such, but I have to disagree. The picture only has three “characters”: Saint Paul, the horse and the groom. Saint Paul looks extremely amazed and in awe due to the fact that Christ has just talked to him. He is on the floor,  temporarily blind, his arms incredibly expressive. The horse is very important too. Now, the Bible doesn’t say anything about Saint Paul falling from his horse, but it was incredibly smart to put the horse in the middle looking at his master kind of confused, wondering what just happened. So Saul who was determined and conceited on the top of his horse is now on the floor, blind. The focus, then, is on the fact that Saint Paul in the floor, the focus is on the human aspect not on the supernatural aspect.

A little bit of enthusiasm

I love this painting because the conversion of Saint Paul is one of my favorite episodes of the Bible. Visualizing Saint Paul falling from his horse with his arms pointing to the sky only increases the dramatic aspect. However, Caravaggio has another painting with the same theme:

The Conversion of Saint Paul - Caravaggio 

I prefer the first one, because there's too much going on here. You almost don’t notice the horse or the light. And I prefer Saint Paul motionless and static.

Maybe I’m off topic here, but I just remembered this looking at the angel in the picture. There was this tv show called Touched by an angel and in one of the episodes, an angel says that God has this incredible gift of turning something initially bad or sad into something good and beautiful. Isn’t this the case with Saint Paul? He was the person who persecuted believers the most. God could have punished him or could have advised the others apostles not to trust him, but He chose to talk to him and to turn him into an apostle.

Of course, none of this has strictly to do with the painting. But the way the scene is painted always reminds me of humility, of getting off our high places on top of our horses and being amazed by the light of God. You can’t see it, but I’m applauding right now.

Which painting do you prefer? What other works from Caravagio do you like?

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  1. I like Caravaggio's paintings, even though I prefer the other Michelangelo.

    I think your post is very interesting because (probably I'm wrong) it is unusual an artist to make two paintings with the same theme and with different aproaches. I need to compare the two paintings and think about it. I'll be back.

  2. I know that Caravaggio also did two paintings about Saint Matthew (you can see them here: and

    But maybe you're on the right track: they might be equally good in their different ways of dealing with the topic.

    Do come back to share your other insights!

  3. This is one of my all-time favourite paintings. Caravaggio is just so powerful. When I visited Rome for the first time in 2009, I was so excited when I was able to actually see this work.

    By the way, your blog indicates that we have a lot of similar cultural interests, so I'm adding it to my blogroll!

  4. It's so exciting to see works of art we love in person, isn't it? The photographic representations still show a lot of the painting's beauty, but in a museum it's so much more impressive. I wish I could have seen it in person too, it must be amazing!

    Thanks for the visit! (I had the same impression when I saw in your blog a label for Louis MacNeice!)


Thanks for commenting! Do come back because I usually reply to comments here.

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