Art paintings by Caravaggio from his so-called Success phase (1600-1606) feature many of his best known works, including both versions of The Conversion of St. Paul. As with much about Caravaggio, these two works continue to befuddle art history experts.
In July 1600, Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, the pontifical treasurer, purchased one of the fivechapels in the church Santa Maria del Popolo. Under guidance from the architect Carlo Moderno, Rome’s two most famous painters were retained to create art paintings for the Cerasi Chapel: Annibale Carracci and Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio.
Caravaggio. The Conversion of St. Paul, 1600-1601. Oil on cypress wood, approximately 7′ 9″ by 6′ 2″. Rome. Collection of Nicoletta Odescalchi.
Carracci’s fame was sealed after completion of his breath-taking ceiling fresco, Loves of the Gods, in the Palazzo Farnese, while Caravaggio was at work on the Contarelli chapel in Rome’s Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
According to Peter Robb in M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, his …” early work stunned his contemporaries because it seemed so real… The effects he achieved made people take startled notice, after he took Rome by storm in 1600, of the polemical simplicity of the way he saw art.”
In late 1600, Caravaggio signed a contract with Monsignor Cerasi for two paintings on cypress wood, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter. Near delivery time, however, the Monsignor died (May 1601).
For reasons still unclear over four centuries later, these two Caravaggio paintings remained in the painter’s possession for four more years, during which time he painted new versions of Conversion and Crucifixion on canvas. These Caravaggio paintings now hang in the Cerasi.
Caravaggio. The Conversion of St. Paul. Oil on canvas, 7’6″ x 5’7″. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
Of the original Caravaggio paintings on cypress, only the privately owned The Conversion of St. Paul remains — The Crucifixion of St. Peter were lost after its last known whereabouts in the collection of the 10th Admiral of Castile in 1691. Some contend it was destroyed; other art history experts believe this Caravaggio painting may be hanging in some Spanish monastery, according to Francesco Buranelli, one of the contributors to Caravaggio, the guide book to the Caravaggio exhibition. (Doesn’t this make you want to take the next flight to Spain, and start monastery-hopping immediately?)
The Conversion of St. Paul, on the other hand, is now privately held by the princess Nicoletta Odescalchi (top image). In the Odescalchi Conversion, Caravaggio has captured the pinnacle of action in the conversion of the Jew, Saul of Tarsus, to the Christian apostle named Paul. He lies crumpled on the ground in the foreground, shielding his eyes from blinding light. In the background, a youthful soldier clasps his ears to dampen some deafening noise, apparently unaware of Christ’s presence.
According to Luke, “the men which journeyed with him [Saul] stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” The older soldier aims his lance at a perceived but invisible threat; again, Caravaggio has literally interpreted the passage in Luke, “And [others] that were with me saw the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.”
Annibale Carracci. Assumption of the Virgin, 1600-1601. Oil on panel, 96″ x 61″. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
In the Cerasi funerary chapel, one of the most famous paintings by Carracci, Assumption of the Virgin, is flanked by Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter on the left and Conversion of St. Paul to the right. Caravaggio portrays the moment when Saul fell from his horse on the road to Damascus. A blinding light flooded the sky, and Christ asked Saul why he was persecuting Christians. Three days later, an apostle restored Saul’s vision and he converted to Christianity. In this version of Conversion, Saul lies on the ground with outstretched arms evoking the Crucifixion.
Art history tells us that Caravaggio and Carracci, leading Baroque painters, were highly competitive with each other. For starters, Caravaggio paintings were made directly onto the canvas without preliminary drawings; this practice forced questions about the prolonged training and years of drawing of his peers like Carracci.
Peter Robb notes that in Caravaggio’s Conversion, “… the pony’s bony workaday rump [was} projecting massively and indecorously toward Annibale’s glassy, demure and untouchable heaven heading virgin. From the altar what you mostly saw was horse’s arse… Annibale Carracci was probably the only person in Rome with an eye to see what M [Caravaggio] had done to him.”
Look below, imagine this Caravaggio painting abutting Carracci’s… and decide Caravaggio’s intentions yourself!
Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin (ahead) with Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul (and its prominently positioned horse) on the right.