On the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul: Contemplating Caravaggio

As the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul today, I thought I’d write a post about the time I saw the two apostles together.

Last year, I saved up and visited Rome with a friend. I had asked my old art professor (who was raised Catholic in Lebanon) for recommendations about which works to see and was most excited by what he said about the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

The chapel contains two works by Caravaggio called “The Conversion [of St. Paul] on the Way to Damascus” and “The Crucifixion of St. Peter.” Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a master and innovator of chiaroscuro painting. Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that means “bright dark” (chiaro = bright; oscuro = dark) and chiaroscuro paintings use high contrast, deep shadows, and significant highlights to create emotion and drama.

Take Caravaggio’s “Taking of Christ” (1598) as an example:

See how the dark background and armor of the Roman guard surround and threaten Christ? Caravaggio uses light sparingly, as if it is something too precious to waste, and this makes the places where light falls all the more significant. It highlights differences in facial expressions and spiritual states: dismay in St. John (on the left); tension and anger in Judas the betrayer; cruel anonymity in the soldiers whose eyes are hid by helmet and shadow; concern in the onlooker on the right (a self-portrait of Caravaggio). Christ’s face, though pained, possesses a unique composure. Caravaggio also uses light to draw attention to the hands. St. John stretches his out in supplication; Judas grips; the soldiers push and shove. Christ’s remain folded in prayer.

Caravaggio’s work is full of drama, and so too his personal life. Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, gives this summary:

He had this terribly, terribly difficult life. He was a troubled man. He was a violent man. He had a sense of abandonment that I think went with him wherever he went. I think he has problems in his relationship with God . . . he paints on the edge of doubt . . . And he has terrible trouble with authority in the secular political sense . . . the pope and the cardinals, they want him to be part of their world but he just somehow can’t be that kind of artist. He can’t be the artist who doths his cap, the courtier artists . . . [He] has to run off away from authority into the street. He has to go fight with swords, he has to go and be with prostitutes.

I had learned some of this in art classes and had come to love Caravaggio the man and the painter, and so I looked forward to my visit to the Cerasi chapel as a sort of pilgrimage. My art professor told me to spend a long time with each work, and that I must pay attention to Saint Peter’s eyes.


We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the early evening. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if it’s that the works are less known, but whatever the reason, we found the church quiet and just a few visitors praying in the pews.

The Cerasi chapel stands in an alcove to the left of the high altar. As you approach, you cannot see the Caravaggio works from a distance because they hang on each side of the alcove, facing each other rather than the viewer. You must kneel at the front of the chapel to get the best view. How different from most museum displays, where works are front and center on a white wall and usually accompanied by a bench for more comfortable contemplation.

Here’s a picture of the chapel, with “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus” on the right and
“The Crucifixion of St. Peter” on the left:

And here are the paintings straight on:

“The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” shows three figures with obscured faces struggling to prop up St. Peter’s cross. St. Peter—who was once too cowardly to admit his acquaintance with Christ—was ultimately crucified upside-down for his faith. Caravaggio uses the three figures to create a circular movement in the painting, which St. Peter’s body position then opposes. Caravaggio depicts St. Peter as literally and figuratively existing on a different plane from his accusers, and his face alone is bathed in light. It suggests this passage from St. John’s Gospel:

And this is the judgment: Because the light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest: because they are done in God.

For Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul, I think there is no better description than Sister Wendy’s:

. . .it is that reputation of the wild violent disreputable Caravaggio that makes this picture so moving. He is showing us St. Paul, who was also a kind of ‘bad boy’ at the beginning: a narrow intolerant man who angrily persecuted the Christians. He was riding on a mission to intensify the persecutions when suddenly, terrifyingly, he had a vision. Christ appeared to him. He was blinded and thrown off his horse. There is a significance here because a man on horseback is a proud man, in control above the others. But once thrown off his horse, all the trappings of power and dignity and self-certainty are roughly removed.

Look at Paul: absolutely vulnerable, legs out-stretched, arms raised to heaven as he falls [with] eyes shut since he has been blinded. Now he cannot even see what is in front of him let alone have vision superior to anybody else. Caravaggio paints him with compassionate truthfulness so that we see what it means to be thrown off a horse: not just coming down to the level of others but laid flat. And Paul becomes even less important because with a stroke of utter brilliance Caravaggio shows the whole event not in terms of Paul but of the horse. It is the horse who is spotlighted as central, careful not to tread on the poor creature that has so unexpectedly slid beneath his belly. Paul has become lower than the beasts—the man who thought himself able to judge and condemn others . . . his useless sword and armour flat on the ground, exposed to the light of truth.

Each painting itself is incredibly powerful. But then I remembered my professor’s instructions and looked at Saint Peter’s eyes. He looks out of the painting, across the space of the chapel, and straight at Saint Paul in the middle of his conversion.

Caravaggio painted this intentionally. For me, this is what makes the two works such a singular wonder.

Through the grace of Christ, Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the oft-mistaken Apostle who finally becomes Peter the Saint—rock of the Church who lays down his life for Christ. This Peter looks back across his shoulder, across space and time, to Saul. Saul, who persecuted the Christians and stoned Saint Stephen, at that moment on the Damascus road takes his first breath as Paul the penitent convert who would become Paul the tireless evangelist and finally Paul the Saint, who poured his life out “like a libation” for Christ and his flock.

By design, Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter” leads the eye back to the conversion of St. Paul, just as the life of faith is a continual return to conversion in Christ. Caravaggio shows Saint Peter, in his martyrdom, looking back on the most humble moment of conversion, and the body positions of the two saints reinforce this: St. Paul’s figure almost perfectly reflects St. Peter’s. The saints do not seek to become martyrs and they do not seek personal glory. They only seek to follow Christ.

The similar composition of the two paintings also sets off this difference: St. Paul’s figure extends out toward the viewer, while St. Peter’s draws back. Conversion stretches out to change the soul in the here-and-now; martyrdom, and death in general, draw the soul away from temporal experience. Truly, St. Paul encountered conversion on the Damascus road—he was thrown from his horse and blinded.  In his crucifixion, St. Peter was drawn back, removed from our physical reality, and drawn up into the beatific vision.


So, if you can, say a little prayer for the soul of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. He died an exile at the age of 38. He may have been on the way to Rome to receive a pardon, but he never made it. Yet I think that someone who could paint so powerfully the drama of conversion, the struggles of the life of faith, and the fruits of following Christ, must be somewhere on the road up Mount Purgatory toward the heavenly gates.

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