Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Conversion of St Paul

Iacopo Nigreti (Venice, 1548/50 — October 14, 1628), best known as Jacopo Palma il Giovane or simply Palma Giovane ("Young Palma")
The Conversion of St Paul 1592
Oil on canvas
207 cm x 337 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

This painting at one time was in the ownership of King Charles I (of England and Scotland). It was subsequently acquired by the Spanish Royal Family.

Palma Giovane was a Venetian painter, said to have been a pupil of Titian, but this tradition has been doubted. In the late 1560s and early 1570s he worked in central Italy, mainly Rome, but thereafter he spent the rest of his life in Venice, and after the death of Tintoretto in 1594 he was the leading painter in the city.

The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus - was very common in the 16th century, in Rome and other regions and countries

The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times, in an almost identical way. In addition, Paul himself describes it in three of his Letters.

The conversion of St. Paul is offered as clear evidence of the heavenly grace and salvation given to the ignorant and the sinner, as stated in The First Letter of Paul to Timothy (1:12-16).

According to St. Augustine, Christ selected Saul, His fiercest enemy ‘so that, after the performance of such a miraculous cure, no sinner might despair of obtaining forgiveness`.

Jacobus de Voragine explains why the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul and not of other saints:

"In the first place, the conversion of Saint Paul is a greater example than the others, to prove to us that there is no sinner who may not hope for the grace which he needs...Finally, this conversion was more of a miracle than the others, since God showed by it that He could convert His cruellest persecutor, and make of him His most loyal apostle...The conversion was also miraculous in the manner in which it was accomplished, namely, the light which prepared him for conversion. This light was sudden, immeasurable, and divine...”. (De Voragine: 126)

The heavenly light that brought about the conversion of St. Paul is used as a metaphor when sent to the Gentiles ‘ open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God...’ (Acts 26:18).

St. Paul is the chosen apostle to deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles so as to allow them, in accordance with his own experience, to “turn to the light”, that is, to the grace that God grants his faithful through the Church (Ephesians 3:7-10).

In a broader sense, the conversion of St. Paul constitutes a sign to the sinners that they are not to lose hope of being blessed with the grace of God.

Palma had spent some time in Rome. He would have been famliar with four versions of the same composition all painted in Rome during the first half of the 16th century:

the Tapestry after the cartoon by Raphael, now in The Pinacoteca, Vatican. Cartoon c.1513-17 (1513-1517);

Michelangelo’s fresco, The Conversion of St. Paul. in the Pauline Chapel, Vatican. 1542-45;

the panel painting The Conversion of St. Paul. now in the Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome. c. 1545. by Francesco Salviati;

and the fresco of the same theme by Francesco Salviati in the Cappella del Pallio in the Palazzo della Cancelleria (1548-1550).

Although Palma borrowed certain motives from them, his final work is a scene with entirely different stylistic characters.

More important influences were Palma’s great Venetian predecessors and he combines traits from each of them. He completed Titian’s Pietà (Accademia, Venice), left unfinished at his death, and it was from Titian that he derived his technique and understanding of light. The freely turning figures are from Tintoretto, who was the most crucial influence on Palma’s work. The opulence of Veronese can be traced in the robes.

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