Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601) is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the Baroque period. It’s truly stunning, and a more learned man than me could write at length on the dramatic placement of the subjects or how the piece exemplifies the Italian painter’s pioneering use of tenebrism. The truly striking thing about this painting, however, is what’s not in there. Unlike so many other depictions of St. Paul’s conversion, here Christ does not look down from the clouds on the man who persecutes Him; there is no crowd of onlookers cowering before flights of angels. Instead, Caravaggio gives us stillness, silence, darkness — the action is all interior.
By painting the scene in this way, Caravaggio achieves a brilliant subversion: It is Paul who perceives the miraculous while the viewer is struck blind. Moreover, the piece challenges us not only to understand but to believe in the reality of St. Paul’s conversion. Only with faith do we see arms raised not just toward the sky but toward Heaven. We see a man who is not just quiet but listening. By stripping away the visible signs of the supernatural Caravaggio has imbued the ordinary with extraordinary meaning.
This revolutionary approach to sacred art was misunderstood at the time, and Caravaggio’s works were occasionally turned down by patrons who found them indecorous. In fact, Caravaggio’s realism is not a rejection of the divine but an embrace of a sacramental worldview. His paintings show grace working in our fallen world, through men and women with dirty hands and plain faces. The Calling of St. Matthew (1600), for example, reminds us that Christ called common men to live uncommon lives for Him, and that He calls us to do the same.
Caravaggio was also not afraid to show holy men and women with bare feet, contorted limbs, and pierced flesh. He seemed to have understood that the human body is not inherently profane; rather, it shares in the dignity of the image of God. As St. Pope John Paul II would later express, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”
In one sense, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s body of work may be more challenging for the believer than the unbeliever. After all, what consolation does a piece like The Death of the Virgin (1606) offer the Christian? The challenge, then, is to have faith, in invisible grace, silent miracles, and unheralded conversions. Without that faith we are blind– blinder, in fact, than St. Paul on the way to Damascus.