Joe Zammit Ciantar takes a look at famous paintings portraying the saint’s conversion to Christianity, which is celebrated annually on January 25
The narrative of St Paul’s shipwreck and stay on the island of Malta around AD 60, in Acts of the Apostles 27: 27-44; 28: 1-6, has inspired artists to paint dramatic scenes which may fill the beholder with awe and wonderment. The episode concerning his conversion to Christianity was likewise depicted in intense paintings representing the imaginary moments of the event as described in detail in Acts 9: 3-18.
Acts of the Apostles
Saul – who was also called Paul [Acts 13:9] – was on his way to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the ‘Way’.
“It happened that while he was travelling to Damascus and approaching the city, suddenly a light from heaven shone all round him. He fell to the ground, and then he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked, and the answer came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless, for though they heard the voice they could see no one.”
The account goes on to tell us that Saul was blinded, that he was taken to a man called Ananias who would lay his hands on him and heal his blindness: “It was as though scales fell away from his eyes and immediately he was able to see again. So he got up and was baptised.”
Two famous oil paintings representing the Conversion of St Paul are by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (died 18 July 1610) – both executed between 1600 and 1601. One is found in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome; the other in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, also in Rome. In both paintings, the focus is on Saul on the ground.
Museum of Old Aix
A similar large framed 17th century Conversion is found in the Museum of Old Aix. Thanks to Nicole Martin-Vignes, curator of the museum [whom I met personally], I can reproduce a photo of this painting attributed to Francesco Trevisani, an Italian painter, active in the period called early Rococo or late Baroque.
A Belgian artist
Another Conversion which captivated me is found in a museum I visited when holidaying in Toulouse, France – the Musèe des Augustins – a fine arts museum which conserves a collection of sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century.
Actually, two particular paintings attracted my attention: one was the Jesus Crucified Between Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens, the other [which must have drawn my attention perhaps because I am Maltese] representing the Conversion of St Paul, painted by Belgian baroque artist Bertholet Flemalle (1614–1675).
It portrays the blinding light seen by Saul, when Christ appeared to him. He eventually fell from upon his horse and… was baptised… and eventually became Paul, the tireless apostle and preacher.
“In this masterpiece of baroque painting, Flemalle managed a marvellous rendering of the violence of the action and what the Italians call contrapposto, or the diverging movements of the figures.” [Wikipedia]
The upper half of the oil on canvas painting is full of colour and light. The figure of the Risen Christ, with nails’ wounds on the palms of His outstretched hands, dominates a large cloud. He is surrounded by three large colourfully-clothed angels and two winged angels’ heads. The drapery of the angels’ attire is entrancing.
In the lower half, the white neck and head of a horse and the white garments of Saul on the ground draw attention. At least four men from those who were with him are quite distinguishable, standing in a state of fear, perplexed by the unfolding event… hearing the voice of someone speaking but seeing no one above.
The whole scenario is impressive, enchanting and mystifying; it illustrates, in human terms, what mysteriously changed a nemesis of Christians into the most important person after Jesus in the history of Christianity.
A similar painting
An oil painting, Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus, also by Flemalle, is found in St Paul’s Cathedral in Liege, Belgium, the birthplace of the artist.
In this depiction we see more of the body of Christ, on a cloud, but with no angels around. While the city of Damascus may be seen in the left-hand side, Saul, wearing a red cloak and on the ground, is leaning to the left.
The Conversion in Malta
In Malta, we find churches dedicated to − and having altarpieces representing − the Conversion in Birkirkara, Cospicua (by Maltese Rokku Buhagiar) and Safi (by Stefano Erardi).
However, the two masterpieces illustrating this event were executed by ‘Il Cavalliere Calabrese’ Mattia Preti (1613–1699). One is found at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, the other hanging on the main altar of the Mdina Cathedral, which is dedicated precisely to the Conversion of Saul to Christianity.
The altarpiece in the Mdina Cathedral is full of people. A robust, thick-bearded Jesus, in full view, is sitting on a large cloud surrounded by angels and overlooking Saul, who is on the ground among soldiers and men, two of whom are trying to control the frightened horse on which the apostle was riding. Saul is looking up at Jesus. The men standing around him represent a scenario of dramatic movement, like that in the Augustinian Museum painting.
The Christ in the painting in St John’s Co-Cathedral is likewise robust, with only two angels next to Him. In the lower half, Saul is depicted larger than that in the previous painting, and only few men and the white head of the horse are seen around him. This work of art is more vibrant with colours.
Both paintings are worthy of universal appreciation.