Faith through Art: Reflecting on one of Michelangelo’s last pieces

The Conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo was painted in the mid-1500s and resides in the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican. (Public domain photo)

By Norman Farmer

On Jan. 25, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. In the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican, Michelangelo depicted the same subject in one of his last two paintings. It is this magnificent fresco that invites us this month to reflect upon the mystery whereby Saul of Tarsus, “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), should literally pivot in his tracks on the road to Damascus and become Paul, “the very least of all the holy ones ... to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8). 
A contemporary described Michelangelo’s painting this way: “A conversion of St. Paul with Christ in the air and a multitude of naked angels ... and below, Paul in fear and amazement thrown to the ground by his horse, surrounded by his soldiers engaged in lifting him, while others, stunned by the voice and glory of Christ, flee in varied attitudes, amazed and terrified, and the fleeting horse in the speed of its onrush drags along the man who is seeking to restrain it, the whole scene being executed with extraordinary art and design.” The phrase, “a conversion of St. Paul” affirms that the painting follows an established pictorial plan, which the writer quickly sums up before concluding that the artist followed it to an “extraordinary” degree. 
True enough – but only to a point. “Art and design” were not Michelangelo’s goals. Instead, he strove to make palpable the mystery that suffuses all that happened on that fateful day as Luke tells it in Acts 9:1-9, as Paul himself tells it twice again in Acts 22:1-20 and 26:1-23, and, finally, as Paul recalls it 14 years later: “I know someone in Christ who ... (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2).  
It is the “third heaven” revelation that led Paul to his conversion that Michelangelo proclaims in this painting and not the conversion itself. While metanoia or conversion would be a suitable subject for poets (like Dante), pastors, and philosophers, it would be impossible for an artist to represent a person’s inner conversion by an image. Instead, it is Paul’s “third heaven” recollection that Michelangelo strives to express –– and so elegantly succeeds. 
These reflections shift our attention from the explicit details noted above to one detail that is not even acknowledged: the blazing “column of fire” (Ex 13:21) that extends from the glorified body of the risen Christ, down his powerful right arm, and directly onto the upraised face of Paul. It consolidates Paul’s Damascus road experience with the millennia-old mystery of the column that guided the Children of Israel through the darkness. And here it is poised to do likewise for Paul in the midst of his own darkness.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus said to the people (Jn 8:12). “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And light is precisely what the promised Messiah brings to the man who loved his God zealously but blindly and unwisely (Phil 3:6). The light that Christ casts upon Paul is the luminous glorification of his risen body, the proof of his resurrection which is henceforth to be the “message of the cross” that Paul will preach for the remainder of his life (1Cor 1:18). 
The “column of fire” serves an artistic purpose as well. It is the essence of visible stability in a sea of worldly confusion, a vertical structural support divinely driven into the created world to re-connect the Creator and the created. Seeing this, we ponder also the ways that those in heaven and on earth respond to this event. In heaven we find visible expressions of wonder and awe, and then of joy, adoration, praise and thanksgiving. But among those accompanying Saul on his mission of death, we see anger, suspicion, fear, wide-eyed terror and raw panic. It is precisely as Paul later told the Romans, “The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace. For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God ... You are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:6-9). 
Every detail serves the idea that supernatural revelation is the true subject of Michelangelo’s painting. God who spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, now speaks through the person of his Son to the Son’s chosen apostle, a point that Paul himself affirms: “The gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being ... it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12). With geometrical precision, as the right hand of the Lord Jesus plants the “column of fire” on earth in order that men might see the light of truth, while with his admonitory and judicial left hand he directs Paul to Jerusalem. There, instead of creating mayhem in God’s name, he will receive baptism and complete his inward conversion at the hands of Ananias (Acts 9:17).
Suggested further reading: The New Testament Letters of St. Paul, and the Sacra Pagina Series Commentaries on the writings of St. Paul.

Norman Farmer, Ph.D, is Professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at the University of Texas. He writes about the relation of sacred art to Catholic prayer life. Norman and his wife, Cora Jane, are parishioners of St. Austin Parish in Austin.

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