The cover of the month

From Saul of Tarsus to Saint Paul by Pierre-Marie Dumont

This impressive altarpiece with its life-size figures can be found behind the main altar of the Church of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Deutenkofen, Lower Bavaria (Germany), in the Diocese of Regensburg. It was sculpted around the year 1500 in the Late Gothic—and already early Renaissance—style by the Master of the Wartenberg Misericordia, so named after the title of his most famous work. In the cloud above, Christ appears calling to Saul of Tarsus: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Below the cloud, two putti borrowed from the Italian Renaissance witness that this is a divine intervention. In the background, we see the fortified city of Damascus, where Saul was headed to place the Christians there under arrest. In the foreground, the artist captures Saul at the moment when he is dazzled by a blinding light from heaven and is about to be thrown to the ground. His head covering, hair, beard, and features are those of a 15th-century Jewish rabbi. Unlike the sources that describe Saint Paul as a rather puny, stout, hunched figure—an appearance, it would seem, that didn’t live up to the grandeur of his soul—he is here represented as a handsome man with a commanding presence. He is surrounded by six figures, one of whom is on the ground, who personify the troop of inquisitors with him. In the foreground, we find a woman, probably the sister of Saint Paul who accompanied him on his missions (cf. Acts 23:16), and a man-at-arms, both dressed as Germans of the period. They’re followed by a judge and a moustachioed executioner. Two figures in Middle Eastern turbans complete the tableau. As in depictions of the Passion, artists would traditionally represent reputedly nefarious figures in the guise of their contemporaries who through their behaviour had elicited either public opprobrium or their own personal dislike. It should in any case be noted that the features of those thought to be Jewish persecutors are not portrayed here as distorted caricatures.

Here is how Saint Paul himself recounts this episode of his conversion, just some five years following the Ascension of the Lord. He testified before Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great, and last king of Judea: As for me, I once thought it was my duty to use every means to oppose the name of Jesus the Nazarene. This I did in Jerusalem; I myself threw many of the saints into prison, acting on authority from the chief priests, and when they were sentenced to death I cast my vote against them. I often went round the synagogues inflicting penalties, trying in this way to force them to renounce their faith; my fury against them was so extreme that I even pursued them into foreign cities. On one such expedition I was going to Damascus, armed with full powers and a commission from the chief priests.

And so, having crossed the Jordan at the “bridge of the daughters of Jacob”, Saul traversed the burning Iturean desert, travelled the vast fertile plain before Damascus, and arrived at the paradisiacal gardens on its outskirts: At midday as I was on my way, your Majesty, I saw a light brighter than the sun come down from heaven. It shone brilliantly round me and my fellow travellers. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you, kicking like this against the goad.” Then I said: Who are you, Lord? And the Lord answered, “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me. But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason: to appoint you as my servant and as witness of this vision in which you have seen me, and of others in which I shall appear to you. I shall deliver you from the people and from the pagans, to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to God, and receive, through faith in me, forgiveness of their sins and a share in the inheritance of the sanctified.” After that, King Agrippa, I could not disobey the heavenly vision (Acts 26:9-19).

The Conversion of Saint Paul (c. 1500),  German relief, Church of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Deutenkofen, South Bavaria, Germany. © akg-images.