Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Light of the World

January 26th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Yesterday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

The iconic painting of this moment in the life of St. Paul is Caravaggio’s, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601).1 The painting depicts the moment recounted in Chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles when Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul, fell on the road to Damascus. He heard the Christ say “I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city.”

It is a very dramatic interpretation of the event; theatrical we could say. There are several design principles Caravaggio uses in the painting to involve us in the action. Many modern art critics would, perhaps, concentrate solely on describing and evaluating the artist’s competency in handling the formal principles used in the organization of design. The religious significance behind Caravaggio’s use of the principles of design in this particular painting might escape them -and us, too. 2

Caravaggio was a painter in the Baroque style. There are several design characteristics that artists working in that style commonly exhibit in their work. Among them are an emphasis on foreshortening, the dominance of asymmetry and diagonal linear arrangements, and dramatic lighting (spotlighting, we could call it, in many paintings). These are what I mean by formal design elements and principles. We can never get away from describing and evaluating how an artist formally organizes a work of art because that concerns the grammar that makes up the language he is using. In the case of Caravaggio’s painting of The Conversion of St. Paul we can briefly say that he has employed –among other things- the element of light (and dark) to dramatically focus our attention. He deploys the principle of emphasis through contrast (stark contrast) to emphasize Paul and the horse he has just been thrown down from. Those are some aspects of the formal design of this image. But, I would like to briefly describe how Caravaggio has used one of the formal elements –light and dark– to convey a religious meaning, or to symbolize religious doctrine.

Here is where the artist and the viewer (including the art critic and art historian) have to be on the same page or share the same religious or cultural background.  That is not by any stretch something we can assume in our secular age.

Knowing what we do about the story of the conversion of St. Paul, we at least understand the light as representative of the voice of Christ. Most of us probably stop right there in reading the painting –at the narrative; at the literal message.  And, that is certainly the most important meaning. But, as in scripture, there are several levels of meaning other than the literal.

Yesterday morning I noticed that the suggested hymn for Morning Prayer in the Common of Apostles included the following: “Of Gospel truth they bore the light to brighten earthly night; may we that heavenly light impart to every mind and heart.”3 In this visually dramatic painting of The Conversion of St. Paul we can see the mighty impact that heavenly light physically had on St. Paul. But, we also see in the painting the artist’s intent to communicate the sense of the absolute awesomeness of God’s intrusion into our earthly night. Through the Incarnation, life, and redemptive death of Christ “the dawn from on high (has broken) upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”4 St. Paul the apostle was to bear the Light of the world to the Gentiles, as we also have been instructed to do.

Light as a symbol of God/Christ, and the Incarnation, is everywhere in scripture, theology, and the visual arts -including architecture.  The whole Gothic style of architecture is based upon the symbolic power of light to communicate the sense of divinity flooding through the glorious stained glass windows. Standing in the nave of a French Gothic cathedral, I am struck by how dark it is inside.5 However, the windows –the glorious windows- glow with intense colors; the warm colors, like the reds, seem to float in front of the cool blues and greens. The abbot responsible for this emphasis on light in the Gothic style, Abbé Suger (ca. 1081-1151), was stirred by the writings of a theologian6 ca. 500 who allegorized God as heavenly light and Jesus as the earthly image of that “Light” from the Gospel of John (1:4-5 and 9) “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… [He] was the true Light which lights every man who comes into the world.” In the Gothic cathedral we see the same “Light” that pierces the darkness in The Conversion of St. Paul, this time piecing the darkness of the interior of the church. Christ, here, is the luminous window, the image of the Father piercing the darkness of earthly sin.

Here is an afterthought : Religious and liturgical art in the Catholic tradition has so much to offer us and yet, for the most part we have jettisoned that tradition in favor of a more protestant or evangelical theology that views art as a threat and a distraction. Our churches are sterile ‘worship spaces’ and our Liturgy has become a matter of functional concerns. Nothing is allowed to take us beyond the literal. We’ve cut it to the bones and removed the meat of the matter. Our personal relationship with Jesus has been reduced to bumper sticker spirituality and social work.

We might know the stories7 but we no longer understand or experience the stories on more than a literal level.  It has become a strictly sterile experience. The arts –music, art and architecture- enlarge and enrich the religious and spiritual experience and deepen our understanding of truth -and our relationship to Truth. They take us to the level of the allegorical. They can uncover in their own way the implications of the faith and the doctrines of the faith. Why limit our ways of understanding to only the sermon/homily?


1 Painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. It is still there.

2 It is a sad part of the fallout of the ascendency of radical secularism in our schools and culture in general that we are losing our ability to read religious works -be they in the visual arts or literature or music- for their original religious meaning.

3 Exultet Orbis Gaudiis, 10th century; translated by Roger Nachtwey, 1965.

4 from the Gospel Canticle (Benedictus) for Morning Prayer

5 Art teachers continue to describe the interior of Gothic cathedrals as brilliantly lit by the light flooding in through the large windows –the large windows being the result of architectural innovation.  But a Gothic cathedral with its original stained glass windows –or colored replacements- is just the opposite; it is noticeably dark. The Light pierces the dark interior in the Gothic cathedral in a different way than in The Conversion of Paul as it causes the brilliant windows to appear suspended in the darkness, illuminating our minds more than the interior.

6 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

7 It seems that very few people, especially the young, even know the stories. Only a very few people know, anymore, the symbolism and iconography. Most run-of-the-mill art historians and clergy don’t even know.

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