Monday, April 26, 2010

Caravaggio and Saint Paul

I thought I would put my art history class to use!

One of my favorite artists is Caravaggio. His subjects are of the religious variety, from The Calling of St. Matthew to Entombment of Christ, usually commissioned by the Church or a family for the family Chapel. There is something so simple, striking, about his work that I love. It isn't over the top in its religious-ness. His use of dramatic lighting, average models, low horizon line, and the understated quality of his paintings creates an intimate religious experience for the viewer. Take Conversion of St.Paul on the Way to Damascus:

If you don't know the story behind St.Paul the painting simply looks like a soldier has fallen off of his horse and the stable-hand is ignoring the commotion. Really, what is depicted is the exact moment of religious epiphany in which Saul, the fallen Roman soldier, converts to Christianity.

The action of the painting is in the foreground, drawing our eye toward it immediately. We see the young man laying on his back, arms outstretched above him as if he is groping the air for an invisible figure. His red cape is splayed out underneath him, his armor and sandals further confirming his identity as a Roman soldier. He is bathed in divine light, his face relaxed and at ease as he hears the voice of Jesus (his eyes closed, I have always assumed, because he has been blinded by the light). This contrasts with the rigid alertness within his body - his neck looks strained and his shoulders are drawn off the ground, like he is preparing to go after the entity speaking to him.

The stable-hand's ignorance is not because he doesn't care, but because he cannot see what is happening; he is oblivious to Saul's brush with the Holy Spirit. Notice that the light is primarily concentrated on Saul, with the stable-hand and horse receding into the darkness. This, along with the stable-hands obliviousness- made me think that Caravaggio was attempting to convey the aspect of the personal connection with God - only you can see or feel your connection with a higher being.

The painting itself was for a family chapel in a church. It was set so that the light entering the windows of the church happened to illuminate Saul, who was at eye-level to the viewer, and emphasis the sense of religious ecstasy.

I've always admired Caravaggio, and I am sure that I will show more of his, and other artists, paintings at another date.

What feelings does this piece inspire within you? Can you connect with the painting on a spiritual level? What do you like, or dislike, about this piece of artwork?

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