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Posted June 19, 2009

Book: Facing the Apostle: Paulís Image in Art
Author: Armanda Santos, FSP
Pauline Books, Boston, 2009. Pp. 128

An Excerpt from the Introduction

In this book an image of Paul anchors each chapter and becomes the primary medium for narrating his story. Thus, iconographic images of Paul are the vehicle through which we will explore the life and message of the great communicator, theologian, apostle, and saint. While my intention for this work is not the formal critical analysis that art historians use, I have nonetheless chosen to engage Paulís iconography using a simplified method to approach and critique the art. For some paintings I explore the artistís biographical data and background. For others, I look at the shapes and colors the artist employs and what the use of such may suggest; for still others, I approach the work by looking at it from the perspective of content (i.e., unpacking meaning contained in the work) or the particular response the artwork may evoke in the viewer.

. . . Here I want to go beyond the attributes traditionally associated with Paul, the sword and the book, and allow Paulís iconography to reveal something of this personality and inner life: his passion for the Gospel; his indefatigable spirit; his identification with Christ; his humanness, friendships, and love for the Church; his universal outlook, etc.

An Excerpt from the Book

The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi)

This famous image of the conversion of Paul was painted in 1600 by Michelangelo Merisi, who was born in Caravaggio. The painting alludes to a sequence of events not entirely captured by the artist but narrated three times in the Acts of the Apostles (although, interestingly enough, Paulís fall from a horse never actually figures into the accounts). Saul (his Jewish name), a devout young Pharisee, is on his way to the city of Damascus to discipline followers of ďthe Way,Ē whom he believes are guilty of subverting Jewish Law. While traveling, he experiences something dramatic and unexpected ó indeed life changing. Caravaggioís painting suggests a period from before the riderís fall to shortly after it has taken place, all the while directing our focus to the precise moment of encounter between Saul and ďthe OneĒ he has been persecuting.

The painting is divided horizontally between the horse in the upper half and Saul in the lower foreground. The composition seems crowed, with the large, imposing horse dominating the scene. The horseís hindquarters and left foreleg, along with its back hump, establish two vertical lines, with the horseís handler forming a third line. Saul lies on the ground with his left leg bent like two sides of a triangle, a shape mirrored from a different angle by the horseís raised leg. The horseís physical strength, conveyed in its muscular legs, is replicated in Saulís muscled arms. The legs of the horse and the assistant, along with Saulís legs and arms, converge in the middle of the painting, creating a visual confusion that compels us to shift our gaze away from it and onto the serene figure lying on the ground. Some apparent crisis has caused this rider to let go of the reigns of his horse, casting the leather straps aside as he relinquishes control of the horse to the attendant.

Caravaggio produces a variety of shapes that direct our reflection toward some revealing aspects of the image. Saulís arms form a half-circle as they strain upward to grasp, to welcome, and to embrace Someone invisible to us but very present to him. A large oval shape highlights the central action in the painting, extending from Saulís right arm, then proceeding up over the horseís head and midsection and finally reaching back down to Saulís left arm. The other large shape emerging and dominating the painting is a rectangle formed by the horseís body and framed against a black background. Out of the darkness on the right-hand side of the painting a light descends in parallel rays, illuminating both the horse and the figure lying beneath it. Radiant light, a great metaphor for revelation, floods Saul in strong, warm hues, but its source remains mysterious as it emanates from darkness. Saulís eyes are closed to convey the blindness ascribed to him in the Scripture account, while the horseís penetrating gaze tries to assess its fallen rider. Even with his eyes shut, Saul appears alert and magnetically drawn by something outside himself. His face is warmed by the intense heat of the light, which he later describes thus: ďI saw a light from the sky more brilliant than the sun. . . .And the Lord said, ĎI am Jesus, whom you are persecutingíĒ. Saul is receptive offering no visible resistance.

Table of Contents

1. A heart transformed

2. Apostle to the Gentiles

3. Good news to write about

4. Paulís parental role

5. A traveler for the Gospel

6. The mysticism of Paul

7. Concern for the Churches

8. The prisoner

9. Paulís crucified and risen Jesus

10. A life spent for the Gospel

11. The martyr

12. The saint

13. Paul, the universal teacher


Appendix I

Questions for personal or group discussion

Appendix II

About the cover