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 behavior 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: I myself once thought that I had to do many things against the name of Jesus, the Nazorean, and I did so in Jerusalem. I imprisoned many of the holy ones with the authorization I received from the chief priests, and when they were to be put to death I cast my vote against them. Many times, in synagogue after synagogue, I punished them in an attempt to force them to blaspheme; I was so enraged against them that I pursued them even to foreign cities. On one such occasion I was traveling to Damascus with the ­authorization of the chief priests.

And so, having crossed the Jordan at the “bridge of the ­daughters of Jacob,” Saul traversed the burning Iturean desert, traveled the vast fertile plain before Damascus, and arrived at the paradisiacal gardens on its outskirts: At midday, along the way, O king, I saw a light from the sky, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my traveling companions. 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 to kick against the goad.” And I said, “Who are you, sir?” And the Lord replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Get up now, and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness of what you have seen of me and what you will be shown. I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me.” And so, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision (Acts 26:9-19).

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