Caravaggio's "Conversion of Saul"

Homily for Choral Evensong by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, January 24, 2021.

One of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s, “Conversion of Saul.” For the art aficionados listening, you probably know that Caravaggio was only 29 years old when in September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi, Pope Clement VIII’s treasure general, commissioned three paintings for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Annibale Caracci, (carachee) painted “Assumption of the Virgin” over the altar, and Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio for a “Crucifixion of Peter” and “Conversion of Saul” on the side walls. Karen Wilkin, in her article, A Transfiguring Moment, Caravaggio’s Potent, Astonishing ‘Conversion of Saul,” (The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2011) notes how carefully Caravaggio related these paintings to each other and to the whole. She describes Caravaggio’s two paintings as framing and extending the “Virgin’s gesture, diagramming the tight space of the chapel while demanding our complete attention for themselves.” Wilkin’s preference is for Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Saul” because of “its sheer strangeness.”

Caravaggio paints Saul lying on his back away from its viewer with a miraculous light shining more on his chest than the rest of his body. The viewer is in the dark but can witness the event. Saul’s arms are reaching outward toward the light, mirroring the pose of Peter and the Virgin on the opposite walls of the chapel. Saul’s body is in the corner and his massive horse commands the center stage of the canvas. Wilkin notes that the groom is oblivious to Saul’s transformation. The painting is a mixture of “pools of darkness and shafts of light,” of geometric forms depicted in Saul’s flat diagonal chest, the horse’s round belly contrasting with the horse’s counter diagonal stance. The horse’s massive shoulder and foreleg symbolize a lightning bolt over Saul.

Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Saul” reflects a visual metaphor of a transformation. The painting vividly depicts what is like to experience a complete change of heart and a complete change of mind. Saul is literally knocked off his horse and lying on the ground. Saul’s posture, lying on his back, symbolizes that he is not in control. He is vulnerable to something greater, something more powerful than him. This is symbolized by the massive horse overshadowing him, dominating him. The Conversion of Saul has profound implications to us today. When we are transformed, when we are changed, we are not the same person anymore. We are not in the same place or position anymore. We are moved, we are vulnerable, and there is a power greater than our self which has caused a transformation. The light illuminating Saul’s chest symbolizes a change of heart which is key to any transformative experience.

Think back. When have you had such an experience? When have you been knocked off your horse and flat on your back and I am speaking mostly metaphorically? I had a conversation with a parishioner who shared with me that when she had a transformative experience, a life changing experience, it was initially not welcomed and was devastating. She shared that she didn’t like the feeling of vulnerability. She didn’t like needing the support of others. She didn’t like changing her direction. She didn’t like the feeling of being out of control. But and there is a but, it forced her to trust and to have faith in God’s divine providence. She had to trust that God was in the midst of this transformative experience and this change in her life, was a good thing. She felt that during the initial phase of the experience she was in the dark. She was blind to what was happening. Does this sound familiar to Saul’s experience? Scripture tells us that his eyes were opened but he could not see. Gradually, the parishioner accepted what was happening to her, her new way of being, her new thoughts and beliefs about life. When this happened, she felt blinders had been removed and she saw that the transformative experience was good. When Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored (Acts 9:18).” Then he was baptized and became a new creature in Christ. The old Saul, the former self, had to die before he became a new creature in Christ.

I can’t tell you that a conversion, a transformation doesn’t involve pain, suffering, discomfort, or hard work, but I can tell you it is life changing, life fulfilling. Amen.