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Seeing is Believing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul, Formal Analysis and Critical Thinking

I teach a 100 level on-site Art History class for The American University of Rome called Art of Rome.¹  I began teaching it in the Spring of 2007 and, as of this writing, have taught it every semester since.  It is, in essence, a hybrid of historical fact—names, dates, places and vocabulary—combined with a methodology designed to enable students to describe, analyze and interpret the meaning of a work of art based on its formal qualities.

It was back in December of 2006 with The Calling of Someone at the Table that I demonstrated how formal analysis serves the understanding and interpretation of a painting.  Here is yet another attempt—perhaps long overdue—to further the cause.

What Something IS is Not What Something MEANS

This is the hardest thing to get beginning students of formal analysis to understand.  This concept runs parallel to the mantra I use with my beginning drawing students: draw what you see, not what you know.

When discussing this idea in class, I’m quick to make comparisons with literature, i.e., pointing out that The Wizard of Oz is a story about a girl, her dog, a tin man, a scarecrow and a lion and their quest to find a great and powerful wizard who can help the girl and her dog return home.  But what The Wizard of Oz means is something else entirely and it is fun to point to some of the many theories that litter the web.

Now, while narrative is often the fruit of the sum of the parts of a figurative painting—the hand of a nude female extending fruit to a nude male easily excites a literary imagination—often times the way in which those parts are arranged, modeled and emphasized may speak to a meaning that is completely detached from the title of the work or the overt actions of the figures.  Narrative in formal analysis is a trap.

What is Formal Analysis?

Formal analysis is an examination of the formal qualities—the parts—of a painting; it is an investigation of the management of those parts and an attempt to understand why and how the decisions made by the artist affect meaning.

The formal qualities of a painting include: size, subject matter, scale, light, line, shape, color, texture, perspective, proportion, rhythm and composition.

With so many to choose from it can at first seem overwhelming, but, often times the artist helps us by limiting the thrust of meaning to one or several of these formal qualities.  Let’s take Caravaggio’s (second) Conversion of Saul as an example:

779px-Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)

What Is the Painting According to the Patron and Context?

For the answer, all we need to do is read the title: The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus.  Easy enough.  In fact, Caravaggio’s realism makes it hard to see it differently.  Saul, having fallen from his horse, embraces the divine light (as opposed to seeing the light—clever to the last, is Caravaggio not?) and marks his conversion to Christianity and his change in name from Saul to Paul.

What Is the Painting According to a Philistine* or a Man from Mars?

A man on the ground, on his back, arms outstretched, his head closest to the viewer, with the body of a horse above him and a second figure standing behind the horse’s head.

In essence, this is the first part of our methodology, Description, albeit a succinct version of it. Description is an objective account of the image with every effort made to avoid value judgements.

* Philistine: a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.  Apple dictionary.

Formal Analysis of the Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus

Let’s pick four formal qualities: Light, line, shape and composition.

  • Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the source of the light.
  • Line serves the emotional and psychological complexity: Saul’s facial expression is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
  • Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of Saul’s embrace, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
  • Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (Saul) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saul and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by Saul’s outstretched arms.  Note: there are many more observations we could make about the composition, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to focus on.

What Does the Painting Mean When Taken in Context?

Here is where we get to turn the screw.  In one to three sentences, I’ll declare an interpretation of these formal qualities while also taking into consideration the sociopolitical environment in which it was made, i.e., the Counter-Reformation:

Caravaggio uses a journalistic realism to convince his religious patrons that his aim is true to the cause of conversion while simultaneously using composition as a vehicle to subvert that message and “counter-reform” meaning: at the center of Saul’s circular embrace is nothing more than the hoof of a horse, a visual pun inferring that those devoted to the light of Christianity are but willing victims to a doctrine and dogma that tramples the spirit.

tja-caravaggio-saul-formal-analysis

Wow.  Now that’s an interpretation using only formal analysis.  But, it does require an understanding of context.  So what if don’t have even that?

What Does the Painting Mean without Knowing the Context?

Well, let’s refine our formal analysis.  Let’s say we don’t know the title and thus don’t know the name of the protagonist.  That means our analysis would now look like this:

  • Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the identity of the source of the light.
  • Line serves emotive complexity: Saul’s the facial expression of the figure on this back is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
  • Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of Saul’s the lower figure’s outstretched arms, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
  • Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (Saul the figure on his back) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saul the lower figure and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by the Saul’s lower figure’s outstretched arms.

By not naming the subject matter we help to ensure that we won’t be mislead by what we may know of the narrative.  Also, we could even push this to the furthest extreme and pretend we don’t even know the name of the artist, let alone the sociopolitical environment of the time.

In light of that, I’ll change my interpretation entirely:

The artist takes the narrative of a horse and fallen rider and transforms it into a moment of prurient revelation. This theme of sexual enlightenment is triggered by the visual and literal weight of the horse’s weight-bearing foot that falls upon the groin of the fallen rider.  In truth, the illusional space allows for this foot to be behind the groin, but the compositional alignment of the foot and groin with regard to the pictorial space (the flat surface of the picture) can not be by chance.  Despite the visceral response this discovery might have upon the viewer, the fallen rider’s serene expression contradicts any sense of physical trauma and instead announces, with arms outstretched, a knowing and joyous embrace of the worlds’s earthly pleasures.

tja-caravaggio-saul-formal-analysis-2

Could a reasonable person disagree with that?  Absolutely.  Have I effectively used formal analysis to support my claim.  I think so.

And there you have it.

¹ Art of Rome is an Art History course created, developed and taught by the late great Prof. Terry Kirk for The American University of Rome for more than twenty years.  I literally took this class with Prof. Kirk in the Fall of 2006 (the semester before I taught it) and we went on to have many joyous and energetic discussions regarding its continuous evolution and refinement.  It is a great honor for me to continue his legacy and it is his memory that ever inspires the enthusiastic and tenacious teaching spirit I try and bring to every class.