Caravaggio’s painting The Conversion on the Way to Damascus is a visual allegory for the figure of the holy fool, who surrenders to God in a way the world can’t comprehend. It imagines the moment of Saul’s conversion in a painting that is itself a rupture from the norms of biblical representation. This is an image that upsets standards of composition and form the way holy fools upset societal norms.
Paul’s refutation of earthly wisdom and his identification with the role of the holy fool through his life and teaching is conveyed through Caravaggio’s visual vocabulary. As such, the painting is an embodiment of the principle of the holy fool as a threat to the established order and dominant institutions.
In my essay, published in The Curator, I trace the paintings formal and conceptual misbehavior, supporting my thesis that genuine spiritual awakening is not always bright and spectacular, but often hidden, messy, and filled with contradictions.
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus