Conversion of Saul
Parmigianino (1503 – 1540)
Recto: This highly finished ink drawing depicts the dramatic moment in the biblical narrative when the fervent persecutor of Christians Saul converts to Christianity. Struck from his horse, Saul turns towards the voice of Christ who suddenly appears from the heavens. Saul’s accompanying soldiers step back from the apparition while one figure strains to help his horse to its feet. Through careful application of wash and highlighting Parmigianino creates a dynamic scene composed of highly modelled, muscular figures.
Verso: Within the story of the conversion of Saint Paul this image captures a slightly later scene than the one on the other side of the sheet. Here, Paul is shown responding to Christ, his kneeling posture and gesture already expressing submission to his new vocation. The broader, calmer use of wash corresponds to the less dramatic character of the composition. In the background, rolling hills and a linear representation of the city of Damascus foreshadow Paul’s symbolic re-entry as a converted sinner.
Both recto and verso of this impressive ink study depict a scene from the Conversion of Saul, a biblical episode derived from the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Jewish commander, Saul of the Saracens, on his way to Damascus, is struck from his horse by a heavenly apparition. The recto depicts the moment when Saul turns and gestures in the direction of Christ, who appears from the heavens. Saul’s panicked horse is supported by one of his soldiers, while a further three soldiers draw back from the apparition. The drawing on the verso is a scene of less dramatic action; almost divided into three constituent parts in order to suggest a sense of narrative. In the centre, Saul rises from the ground, Christ’s hand a few inches from Saul’s forehead. To Saul’s right, his horse stands, its front legs raised from the ground, its head turned back toward the soldiers who are gathered behind it. To give a sense of time and place to the drawing, Parmigianino suggested a vision of the city of Damascus over some rolling hills in the background to the right of the composition, foreshadowing Saul’s symbolic entry to the city as a reformed sinner.
The drawings are generally accepted as preparatory studies for the completed Conversion of Saul in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. In his ‘Life of Parmigianino’ Vasari refers to a ‘panel of a Conversion of Saint Paul with many figures’ which was painted for Giovanni Bianchi, an anatomy lecturer at the University of Bologna. Therefore the studies have been dated to between 1527 and 1530: the period of Parmigianino’s sojourn in Bologna, following his flight from the Sack of Rome. Stylistically the figural studies on recto and verso correspond to Parmigianino’s co-eval works: the kneeling figure of Paul on the verso of the drawing reminiscent of both John the Baptist in the National Gallery Vision of Saint Jerome, painted in Rome in 1527, and ink studies for the Saint Roch with a Donor, which was commissioned for a Bolognese patron in 1527.
Hugo Chapman has noted that there is not a significant stylistic difference between the drawings executed by Parmigianino while he was in Rome and Bologna; his preferred medium in both locations was pen and ink, with white gouache highlighting. Recto and verso display a different handling of the medium: on the recto Parmigianino uses the wash to create a highly modelled composition, dominated by strong chiaroscuro and softened angles, while the verso demonstrates a tighter use of wash and a broader use of pen.
Given that Parmigianino was living with the engraver Antonio da Trento in Bologna, it is possible that the ink studies were initially intended as modelli, preparatory studies for engravings, for an early project with da Trento. Parmigianino collaborated with da Trento on six prints, the earliest of which was likely the chiaroscuro woodcut of The Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul (fig. 1). While the compositional complexity in PG.360 differs from Parmigianino’s design for the Martyrdom, there is a certain similarity in the sense of narrative dynamism of the drawings, and indeed the Conversion of Saul would have seemed a fitting partner to the theme of the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul.
Parmigianino’s exposure to the Roman maniera moderna is observable in elements such as the torsion of the fallen body of Saint Paul on the recto, which recalls Heliodorus in Raphael’s Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, and Paul’s horse on the recto, the muscularity of which is reminiscent of Giulio Romano’s Battle of Constantine. Parmigianino combined his study of contemporary Roman works with reference to the antique: the upwards gaze of Paul on the verso recalls the gaze of the Laocoon, which was known to Parmigianino.
In both studies, Parmigianino depicts a single moment, which is simultaneously of transformative stasis and vivid motion, effectuated by Parmigianino’s use of line, light and shade, rendered with speed and accuracy to create studies in which the primacy of disegno makes manifest what Giorgio Vasari’s intended for maniera moderna.