Christian art is as old at Christianity itself. Art can be a powerful tool to communicate the truth of the Bible and of who God is. One of my favorite paintings is the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, painted around 1600 by the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio. Caravaggio is such a rock star. He was the painter in Rome at the time and is one of my all-time favorite artists.
Here, Caravaggio has captured an amazing moment in history, which can be read about in the book of Acts. Saul was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christ's followers and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Acts 9:1 says that "Saul was uttering threats with every breath." That he was so zealous to destroy Christians and had such a hardened heart is significant to what happens next!
Acts 9: 3-4 says, "As he was nearing Damascus on this mission, a brilliant light from heaven suddenly beamed down upon him! He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?'" Saul asked who the voice was; there was no one around him but his groom and his horse. "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (Acts 9: 5-6) When Saul tried to get up, he realized that the light had blinded him. He couldn't see for three days until Ananias laid his hands on him. Now called "Paul," he was baptized and immediately began preaching the Good News.
Caravaggio has captured the moment that Saul’s heart was miraculously touched by God. Saul has just been thrown from his horse and is laying flat on his back with his arms thrown up to heaven, as if he’s trying to embrace the divine light that blinds him. Have you noticed how the composition of the painting is so concentrated? There’s hardly any empty space. The horse is massive and takes up most of the painting but creates a frame that locks us into a close-up, intimate view of the scene. The figures are life-size! Imagine the impact this painting has on its viewers! It’s like we’re witnessing this spiritual event ourselves. There aren’t any angels or halos or supernatural figures, either. Caravaggio made this experience look natural, like it could happen to any of us.
The light in the painting is remarkable. It’s coming from a source that is outside the painting. There are a few visible rays in the top right corner of the composition. Caravaggio’s use of light is dramatic and reflects the significance of the moment. The stark contrasts of light and dark was a signature style of Caravaggio’s that shocked and then fascinated his contemporaries. It’s a technique called tenebrism and became a prominent feature of Baroque painting—dramatic, deep shadows with intense illumination. Saul is emerging from the darkness, literally and figuratively.
Look at the serenity in Saul's face—it’s like Caravaggio is inviting us to be transformed along with him. He is stunned but not in agony. I don't know about you, but I would probably look a little more freaked out! Saul's calm expression invites us to participate in the mystery of the conversion.
This painting reminds me of how relational God is. Paul wrote of his desire to be in relation with Christ in Philippians 3:10—“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” The result of the event in this painting was knowledge of God—of what he has done and of the relationship between God and Paul. He spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, but he speaks to us and he’s alive today too. God restores all of our souls and enlightens us the way that he did with Paul.
In Acts 22:10, Paul wrote that he responded to the voice of Jesus by asking, “What shall I do, Lord?” He was willing to do what Jesus commanded of him. Caravaggio’s painting is a reminder of the saving power of Christ and how his grace transforms us. Grace by faith through Jesus gives us hope that any sinner can be forgiven. Like Paul, we must be willing to let God transform us, acknowledging his authority, and respond to him with “What shall I do, Lord?”