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The Conversion of Saint Paul

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564). Cappella Paulina – The Vatican. 1542.

Saint Paul at Ephesus

Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655). Musée du Louvre. Paris. 1649.

The Conversion of Paul

Saul was a Roman centurion who nourished a special hatred against the followers of Christ. He was a witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first Dean of the church appointed by the apostles, and he approved of the execution. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that when Dean Stephen was stoned, the Jews who cast the stones took off their garments lest they be made unclean in contact with the blasphemer. They laid their clothes at the feet of the young man called Saul who guarded the garments and thus shared in the guilt of the stoning. John tells in the Acts of the Apostles that Saul began doing great harm to the church; he went from house to house arresting men and women and sending them to prison. John said that Saul was breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples. Saul went to the high priest of the Jews and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, that would authorise him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way, men or women, that he might find G38 . So, Saul was on his way to put the Christians in chains and take them bound to Jerusalem.

It happened that while he was travelling to Damascus and approaching the city, suddenly a light from heaven shone all round him. He fell to the ground, and then he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” he asked, and the answer came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless, for though they had heard the voice they could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes they could see nothing at all, and the men had to lead him into Damascus by the hand. For three days he was without sight and took neither food nor drink G38 .

Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence painted a fresco of this scene in the Vatican Palace.

Pope Paul III had caused a chapel called the Pauline after his name to be built by Antonio da Sangallo. The Pope asked Michelangelo to paint in this chapel two large pictures. In one scene Michelangelo painted the ‘Conversion of Saint Paul’; the other scene contained the ‘Crucifixion of Saint Peter’. These scenes were made in fresco by Michelangelo at the age of seventy-five. They were the last pictures he painted. Giorgio Vasari remembered in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ that Michelangelo furthermore arranged for another artist, Perin de Vega, to decorate the vaulting with stucco and various other pictures, following Michelangelo’s designs. But that work was not finished. Still according to Vasari, the frescoes caused a great deal of effort for the artist in his old age.

The scenes were a remarkable lesson in humility for the Popes. Peter was crucified head down before their eyes and the formidable warrior of God, Paul, was stricken to the ground. In the magnificently decorated Pauline chapel the Popes were always confronted with the vulnerability of all human power including their own. The conversion of Saul was also a grand lesson of the Church, for it showed that no sinner, however grievous his act, could despair of pardon. For Saul, whose sins were so great, became so much greater in grace. Or, as the ‘Golden Legend’ tells, Christ had cured Saul of his pride, offering him the depths of humility, to bring him to the heights of majesty.

Michelangelo painted the massive frescoes in the Pauline Chapel in the period dating from 1542 to 1550. Pope Paul III had commissioned them right after the artist had finished the ‘Last Judgement’ of the Sistine Chapel, on which Michelangelo had already worked from 1536 to 1541. The ‘Last Judgement’ was inaugurated in October 1541. So there is an almost uninterrupted line of pictorial work by Michelangelo in the Vatican from 1536 to 1551. After that, he worked mostly as an architect on Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome. But he still sculptured and also continued architectural work on various other projects in Rome and Florence.

The ‘Conversion of Paul’ and the ‘Crucifixion of Peter’ were the final evolution in Michelangelo’s art as a painter. Whether Michelangelo himself thought it as such and whether he worked as if these pictures were his testament can hardly be believed. His genius was far from exhausted and though the physical effort was great at his age, he continued to lead a very creative life for fifteen years after the frescoes in the Pauline Chapel. Thus, the frescoes should more be regarded as a next stage in the evolution of a painter who probably grew tired, but who must have felt that he could be very creative still for many years. Therefore we should look for power instead of for lassitude in Michelangelo’s last pictorial work.

The overall view of the picture is one of complexity and disorder. Many figures are moving in a dramatic scene of anguish and panic. There is a double scene in the fresco. Beneath, Paul has fallen from his horse. The animal frantically runs away, prances, but turns back its head to the tumult it is leaving. Various figures of Saul’s companions are on both sides of the horse. They are struck with fear. Some have been thrown to the ground. Others cover their ears for the deafening thunder. Still others look in fright at the skies. On the left people are running away; they are pointing to the heaven. A man tries to hold up a shield to cover his eyes and protect him from the intense lightning.

Together with the ‘Last Judgement’ this scene epitomises the new art of Mannerism as brought about by the vision of the elder Michelangelo and then taken on to an entire style by subsequent painters. Such scenes express what has been called Michelangelo’s ‘terribilità’, his terrible power to create tension of human bodies in a very powerful painting.

In the scene above the humans, God has broken through the clouds. He sends down a shaft of light, his lightning, to Saul. Angels and saints accompany God. Deep below lies Saul terraced by God’s sign. He is blinded and holds up a helpless arm to avert the wrath of God.

Michelangelo has painted low sloping hills in the background. He was no landscape painter. He could not be interested in painstakingly picturing in details of bucolic nature. Landscape painting was not in his domain of interest and it was not what he was good at. Michelangelo was an urban artist. He needed to live in the large towns, in Rome and Florence, even if he stayed in their outskirts to seek calm. He was a very tactile man who would touch, embrace, hold people and of course who did so too with his sculptures. His sculptures are almost exclusively of human male bodies. Michelangelo needed to hold living human flesh in his hands, he needed the soft touch of skin that remains firm under a touch. He liked hard muscles and he knew that under all clothes lay the core of man, his most intimate self. Michelangelo was concerned with the soul of his figures, but as much with their human substance.

With the ‘Conversion of Paul’ Michelangelo created a fearful scene. God’s power over man is all encompassing, without recourse, without pity and without escape. The powerful Roman centurion Saul keeps his arm protectively in front of his face. But how frail and helpless, does he look in this scene. Saul is utterly subdued and abandoned to God.

Michelangelo made a self-portrait in Saul. He also represented himself in the second fresco, in the ‘Crucifixion of Saint Peter’. There he seems to be an artisan, a worker in simple workman’s clothes with a cap over his old but very powerful head. He crosses his arms and does not look at Peter’s crucifixion, but he confronts the viewer in an attitude of pain. Here Michelangelo is not the actor as in the ‘Conversion of Paul’, but the spectator. Michelangelo always felt very linked to the Popes, even when he disobeyed them or defended his Florence against their armies. It is no coincidence that in one fresco he painted his own downfall, in the other the death of the first Pope with himself a close, passive but sad witness.

In the ‘Conversion of Paul’, Michelangelo is the down stricken Saul. Many men accompany Saul, and Michelangelo too had many people who accompanied him, esteemed him, and tried to profit from a powerful man who was in the favours of the Popes and the Medici of Florence. Yet, God has humbled that same proud and authoritative genius of a man in the midst of his companions. Which powerful man would depict himself as such, humble himself before the viewers? Only a man who had suffered in the flesh, pleaded and begged for help in prayers would have been able to show such an image.

The ‘Conversion of Paul’ is a very different picture from anything Michelangelo painted before. The scene is more raw, nervous, angry, and obsessive. Michelangelo’s communication of the power of God to the viewer is more immediate than in the ‘Last Judgement’. The figures in this fresco on Paul are more basic, rough, represented in a more primeval way than in the graceful images of the Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted a thoroughly well understood scene, with the same power as the Isenheim altar panels of Matthias Grünewald. Thereby, his work is one of the greatest masterpieces of expression in the most direct, sensual means possible. And it created Mannerism. One can feel Michelangelo’s hands going over the bodies, the strength of his own emotions towards God and his awareness of the frailty of the human nature in Saul. This was really how a conversion of Saul must have happened, with these emotions in the actors.

Michelangelo had no need for structure, no need for landscape in his pictures. The only element that counted was the depiction of the human bodies under stress and the conveyed emotions. There is interest neither in geometries nor in structure when human emotions are the essence of a picture. In that, Michelangelo was very far from most other Florentine painters like Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci. He had abandoned a tradition of Florentine pictorial representation and found his only own. Few painters and pictures thus concentrate on emotions and sensuality alone.

The French historian Daniel Arasse wrote that scenes of the conversion of Paul suddenly became commonplace in the sixteenth century. It was the conversion of a combatant of the true faith to Catholicism, to the original Christianism and to a religious vision of the world in which Paul and Peter led the church hand in hand to how Catholics knew it. The message of the image was clearly directed to Martin Luther, the Paul that had to be converted to Catholicism, to the church of Peter. Michelangelo made of the conversion of Saint Paul a scene with soldiers and tumult, as if an immense battle would come.

After Saul had been stricken down, Jesus told a man of Damascus called Ananias to go to Saul. Jesus told to Ananias, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to bring my name before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Ananias went, entered the house where Saul lay, and laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, I have been sent by the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the way here, so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It was as though scales fell away from Saul’s eyes and immediately he was able to see again, and he got up and was baptised and after taking some food he regained his strength G38 .

Paul became the most forceful missionary of Christian faith. His epistles created the further practical foundation of Christianity.

Saint Paul at Ephesus

Eustache Le Sueur was born in late 1627 in Paris. He was the son of a wood-sculptor, Cathelin Le Sueur, and was brought at the age of sixteen, in 1632, into the workshop of Simon Vouet, France’s foremost Classical and Baroque painter. Le Sueur may have stayed for more than ten years in the Vouet workshop, for he became an independent master only in 1644 or 1645. Contrary to many other Parisian masters, he never left Paris for Rome. He studied by himself the elements of his art, by studying other paintings. In 1645 he received a commission to paint a series of twenty-two paintings of the life of Saint Bruno, the founder of the Chartreuse Order. The commission came from the Chartreuse of Paris, and it is in this series that we find the most original visions and pictures of Le Sueur but also his most austere and depleted ones, which proved his deep spiritual involvement in the subject. Le Sueur was a Classicist painter of the Baroque period. He painted mostly for the wealthy and for the courtiers of Paris, who preferred rather strict, grand and dignified pictures that were representative for their view on and control of French society of the mid-seventeenth century. Le Sueur also decorated walls, ceilings and cupolas for more frivolous halls than churches and abbeys. He decorated for instance the Cabinet d’Amour for the financier Lambert de Thorigny at the Hotel Lambert in Paris, around the same time of 144 to 1646. Here he painted love scenes in very light mythological themes. He decorated also Lambert’s Room of the Muses and other such places. After 1653, Le Sueur worked at the Louvre and for the apartments of Anne of Austria and even for the young Louis XIV. He was a rather discreet painter, and of course he had to be that, since he worked for the very leaders of French society and the royal court of France. Le Sueur died in 1655, only thirty-eight years old.

The Guild of Goldsmiths of Paris commissioned each year in the month of May a painting to be made for Notre Dame Cathedral. The paintings had to be large if not huge, to be hung in the nave of the cathedral. These paintings were made by the most important and often young new talents of Paris. Many of the paintings have now disappeared, and the remaining ones are dispersed over several French museums. In 1649 it was Eustache Le Sueur’s turn to receive a commission for such a May painting. He made ‘Saint Paul preaching at Ephesus’, a picture that hangs now in the Louvre Museum of Paris. This work was painted some time after Le Sueur had also become, with eleven other artists, one of the founders of the French Academy. These two accomplishments say much about how much at his relatively young age he was already considered one of the greatest artists of his time. The work shows the solemn vision of the wealthy society that had a grandiose and powerful vision for France, a vision of people who ruled with totally centralised and unified power over a large country.

Eustache Le Sueur’s work ‘Saint Paul at Ephesus’ relates of Paul’s life at that town, as told in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul travelled overland from Corinth to Ephesus. He met a number of disciples there, twelve in number, like the number of Jesus’ apostles, all people that had been baptised in Saint John the Baptist’s way. Paul baptised them in the name of Jesus Christ and the men received the Holy Spirit so that they could speak prophecies and foreign languages. Then Paul preached Christendom in the Jewish synagogue of the town for three months, until some of the Jews openly attacked him with his teachings on Christ. He preached then daily in the lecture room of the Tyrannus for two years, and converted many people. Paul did many miracles at Ephesus. Certain men started however to speak in Paul’s name and they tried to drive out evil spirits that way. The spirits recognised Jesus and they knew Paul, but they neither recognised nor knew the self-made exorcists, so the evil spirits attacked and did violence to the Jews that had spoken in Paul’s name without involving him in person. Only Paul could perform miracles. This came to be known at Ephesus, and Paul’s prestige grew. Soon a number of men that had thus used spells and magic came forward to Paul. They threw down their books on a pile and burned them in public. These books had been very expensive, so a large amount of money disappeared in ashes that day. This scene was painted by Le Sueur. While Paul was at Ephesus, a silversmith called Demetrius organised a revolt in the town because he and the other silversmiths feared that they would soon receive no commissions anymore for silver shrines to the honour of the goddess Diana. The mob ran to the theatre, taking prisoner Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s companions. There were several attempts to silence the people in the theatre, because there was so much shouting that nobody still knew what was going on. These attempts did not succeed. Finally, the town clerk silenced the people saying that Diana, whose statue had fallen from heaven to Ephesus, would continue to be honoured in the town. He said nobody had really blasphemed against Diana with the new faith, certainly not Gaius and Aristarchus, and the town clerk told that if Demetrius wanted to complain about something, he should take the case to court with the proconsuls. He dismissed the men in the theatre. When this was over, Paul encouraged his disciples, but he himself left for Macedonia and Syria. He left accompanied by Sopater, son of Pyrrhus, by Aristarchus and Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus. They travelled to Troas G38 .

Eustache Le Sueur made his enormous painting for the nave of Notre Dame Cathedral on this subject of the magicians burning their books of exorcism and maybe also partly on the mob in the theatre of Ephesus.

Paul stands on the stairs of the synagogue or of the Tyrannus. The magicians throw down their books at his feet and start to burn the paper. Paul stretches his right arm upward, pointing to the heavens. With his left arm the Saint holds a heavy book, which could be the bible. Le Sueur made an impressive, grand figure of Paul. His depiction is very strict, very austere and static, as would be best suited for the Notre Dame nave in Le Sueur’s opinion.

Eustache Le Sueur drew a strong structure for his ‘Saint Paul at Ephesus’. He applied the pyramid structure, with the head of Paul at the summit. Two lines go down from the Saint’s face to the two lower corners of the frame, building the strongest and most obvious basic construction one could design in a painting. He positioned his figures along these two lines. In the triangle made by the two slanting lines and the basis of the pyramid – the lower horizontal border of the frame – he drew the books and the fire, his central theme. Saint Paul stands on marble stairs, and his face is situated not exactly in, but somewhat above the centre point of the picture, above the point where the diagonals cut. This gives an immediate impression of greatness to Saint Paul. Paul imposes in this place of higher than the centre of the painting. He is also longer in height than one third of the height of the frame. So, Paul is taller and longer than the natural lengths that the symmetry of the frame would impose on the painter. These were all elements that le Sueur applied to ensure that his Saint Paul dominates in the scene and on the viewer.

Le Sueur emphasised Saint Paul’s authority with every means available. He dressed him in a long, grey-white robe, to support Paul’s long stature. He made Saint Paul wear a long, red cloak, which equally accentuates the length of the Saint, and which is the largest mass of pure hue in the painting. This draws the eye of the viewer rapidly to the figure of Paul. Paul stands then with outstretched right arm pointing upwards, with a gesture that elongates the figure of the Saint even more. If that was not enough, Paul’s finger is continued in the long, ascending line of a column of the synagogue and this is a vertical, dark-coloured narrow area that mounts to the top of the painting. It would be hard to invent more style elements to make of the figure of Paul a figure of more drama, epic and imposing greatness. One could hardly find a more rigorous example of French Classicist principles applied in their most obvious form. We have a feeling of exaggeration with this design of Le Sueur. It is simply too much of the stiffness and strictness, too much of verticals in a painting. The verticals are emphasised in the columns of the temple – and/or theatre – to the left and right of Paul. Also the horizontal lines are stressed, such as in the stairs below Saint Paul, and these lines underscore the rigour of the Parisian painter a little too much.

Le Sueur also emphasised the symmetry in his painting in the way he placed his colours. The viewer will find areas of blue colour to the extreme right and left of Paul, and patches of white on either side too. There are also balanced masses of brown on both sides. With these, Le Sueur tried to break a little the equilibrium of areas, for he placed larger areas of blue and white to the left side of the painting. The effect of this is obviously to better lead the spectator’s view and to centre the view of the spectator on Paul’s face. Yet, there might even be an error of judgement and of composition in this left side of the frame. Le Sueur drew the man on the left side, the man dressed in blue, too large in comparison with the effect he sought on Paul, and that diminishes Paul’s tallness. Le Sueur painted this magician however not in light blue hues – contrary to the colour of the old Jew on the right – but he darkened the colours of the man’s robe, bringing also some less circumspect brown shades on the man’s clothes. With this man however, Le Sueur attracts the eye of the viewer first to the left side and then he makes the viewer look upward, over the white figure, to Paul. The spectator’s eyes do not start on the figure of the old, bent Jew on the right and then over the brown cloak of a man to Paul, because this line is more broken by open spaces.

Le Sueur draws the attention of the viewer to Paul’s face. The Saint has slightly reddish cheeks and his face is crowned with heavy hair and he has a full beard. Paul’s face does not have the long face with the obsessive traits we would have expected of the intelligent and very energetic preacher. Furthermore, Le Sueur placed many figures of other men at the height of the Saint’s face, behind and around Paul. The men form a horizontal band of rather nondescript, brown colours along Paul’s shoulders. This mass makes that our view lingers there, but it also makes the structure top-heavy and it dilutes much the effect of elevation to the head of Saint Paul and towards the skies, a feeling that would have enthralled the viewer.

Le Sueur placed higher up, on the right side, a Greek temple, which could be the theatre of the story in the Acts of the Apostles, in lighter colours, to give the picture altogether a sense of deeper perspective. But le Sueur’s lines are very strictly horizontal and vertical there, and he clearly favoured the darker area above Paul, as an extension of the Saint’s figure. So much verticals stress too much the tight rigidness of the depiction.

Eustache Le Sueur’s painting of Saint Paul at Ephesus has qualities of composition and structure, supported by a judicious use of lines, colours and combination of areas, but also weaknesses. He made this picture in 1649, when he was certainly already at the height of his fame. He must have wanted to show he was worth this reputation. He was only thirty-two years old then, however. He seems still to have been learning, especially for his largest pictures such as the ‘Saint Paul at Ephesus’, which was his first enormous picture. He had made perfect, intimate paintings of intense devotion before. He had shown he could represent depth of feelings well enough. He still had to learn how to be great in grace and naturalness. There have been painters who found this balance immediately, at young age. This is how one discerns genius from talent. Le Sueur was a very talented painter, who proved strokes of genuine genius in some paintings, but he showed only his potent talent in other pictures. His ‘Saint Paul at Ephesus’ belongs to the latter works. The ‘Saint Paul at Ephesus’ was a fine picture to hang in Notre Dame, not only because of its huge dimensions. It represented the victory of Christendom over paganism, Hebrew faith and popular superstition. Saint Paul was to incarnate the authority of the church over all matters of belief. It was a fine subject for the guild of Goldsmiths of Paris to offer to their cathedral.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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