Vol I No. 7
Feasts & Seasons

Fr. Gavin Dunbar reflects on Michelangelo and the Conversion of Saint Paul

by sinetortus

The Conversion of St Paul, Michelangelo, The Pauline Chapel, The Vatican (public domain)

Scripture narratives are not just narratives. They don’t just tell us about persons and events: they are also reflections on the meaning of those events for faith; and this significance is conveyed by the way the story is told, by the selection of details, and the choice of words to describe them.

A good preacher will bring out the significance of these stories for faith; and some of the best preachers are the artists. Their sacred art is never simply illustration: it is always reflection on the events they depict. Which is to say that some of our greatest theologians are artists (and also poets and composers of music).

The story of the  Conversion of Saint Paul is told and retold in Acts 9, 22, and 26.

Saul (his Aramaic name) was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, when a blinding light from heaven struck him to the ground, and the Lord spoke to him; an utterly unmerited act of mercy that turned the ferocious persecutor of the Church into the fervent preacher of the Gospel, and “teacher of the Gentiles”.

Perhaps the greatest meditation on this narrative is almost the last fresco painted by Michelangelo, in the Pauline chapel in the Vatican. Though just across the hall from the Sistine Chapel, it is never open to the public, but you can see it at https://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/paolina_vr/. (It’s on the left.)

It’s a painting that does not have a lot of immediate aesthetic appeal. If you are looking for the idealized physical beauty of the David or the Creation of Adam, you won’t find it here. The color is not luscious but strident; the heroic musculature for which he was famed has become thickened and heavy; the painting itself seems out of alignment with the picture frame and the picture plane. By the time Michelangelo painted it, he had undergone a religious conversion (brought about by his only close woman friend, the aristocrat, poet, and devout catholic evangelical Vittoria Colonna). Art was no longer his god, and this painting, so devoid of sensuous aesthetic appeal, is a confession of faith.

There are three rivals for attention in this picture – a steeply foreshortened Christ in glory at the top left, bisecting with his outstretched arm a choir of angels convergent in love; an unbalanced and blinded Saul, sprawling on the earth beneath the Lord’s hand; and, at the center of the picture, the rump of Saul’s horse, who is bolting away from the viewer in panic, around whom the troop of soldiers bursts apart in fear. The three figures are linked in a chain of causation, which Leo Steinberg likens to Christ as the hammer, Saul the anvil, and the horse as flying spark, the evidence of the force of the blow that Christ has struck. Once you see that, the rest of the picture falls into place.

In a way, the horse’s rump at the center is the key. “A horse is counted but a vain thing to save a man; neither shall he deliver any man by his great strength” (Ps. 33:16 PBV). Look at the bemuscled stalwarts in Saul’s troop, cowering helplessly in fear. The strongest are the most arrested. Saul’s fall from the horse is the emblem of the pride that comes before a fall: Michelangelo has turned the heroic male physique in which he once gloried into a symbol of spiritual impotence. Saul himself sprawls on the earth at the very bottom of the picture frame,  destabilized by the overwhelming power of Christ; but his posture is one of remarkable complexity: because he is simultaneously falling forward, and also being drawn and even lifted up to the glory which blinds him. In his humbling to the earth, he is “caught up into the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). And his twisting and turning body is an embodiment of conversion, a word which means “turning”.

The exception to this picture of human impotence is the man in yellow, who bends down to support Saul – the only strength who is not impotent, whose figure is foreshortened like Christ’s, whose arms are powerful like Christ’s. It is an image of charity and friendship – one of the most characteristic and poignant themes in Michelangelo’s art, though often overlooked.

The figure of Saul is almost toppling forward into the space of the spectator, with the result that we ourselves are drawn into this conversion; the bolt of divine power that descends from Christ’s hand falls upon us also. And if that line descends from Christ through Saul to us, it reascends from us through the the two soldiers on our right who emerge from below the picture frame, apparently oblivious to the drama happening just beside them, intent on their destination – the city on the horizon, which is historically Damascus but figuratively the place where spiritual blindness is healed. They are the Christian soldiers – the converted – living out their conversion and vocation in pilgrimage, and in the charity of Christian friendship.  “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, and he may exalt you in due time”.

The photo is public domain from WikiArt.org  . This essay was first published in the St. John’s Parish Paper fJan. 24, 2021.