Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Conversion of St Paul

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Conversion_of_Saul_-_WGA3329Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted Conversion of Paul  (oil on panel, 108 x 156 cm) in 1567. It is currently held and exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Saul, persecutor of Christians, the future St Paul, was journeying to Damascus to gather these religious heretics and convey them to Jerusalem for punishment at the hands of the high priest. According to the Gospels, a light shone on him, and he heard the voice of Jesus as he fell to the ground.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.  — Acts 9:3–9, NIV

Let us take a closer look at the painting.peter bruegel.PNGThe painting presents a military force on foot and horseback within a steep alpine pass, but here the subject remains obscure at first glance. The main impression consists of spatial contrasts: the mountain pass on the left reveals a vertiginous view down to a distant, verdant seacoast, from which antlike figures ascend.

1. Sea and ships far away

1. Sea and ships far away

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3. The wagons and soldiers

 Bruegel also included an army of foot soldiers, many still slogging up the steep hillside.

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4. Endless procession of soldiers. Like ant they are, following one after another

This combination of military units was characteristic of sixteenth-century armies (along with the added force of modern cannon inappropriate to a biblical depiction).

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At the pivot of this procession, between light and dark, several large equestrian figures occupy the lower right corner of the picture. Their bright costumes and the prominent horse rumps identify them as cavalry officers bearing the squadron banner. Behind them sits a fuller cavalry force in contemporary armor.

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9. The Black Rider

At the pivot of this procession, between light and dark, several large equestrian figures occupy the lower right corner of the picture. Their bright costumes and the prominent horse rumps identify them as cavalry officers bearing the squadron banner. Behind them sits a fuller cavalry force in contemporary armor.

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10. One of the soldiers point the nobility the place where something is happening

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Clad in blue and surrounded by a tight circle of observers, foreshortened on the ground as Saul struggles before the horse from which he has just fallen.

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12. The scene with the future Apostle Paul

In Bruegel’s painting that light, though faint, can be found above and to the left of the evergreens, subtly angled to intercept the prone figure of Saul. While Saul’s soldiers respond to his bodily accident, they fail to grasp the ultimate spiritual significance of this event. In the denouement, a temporarily blinded Saul is led on to Damascus by his men.

13. Depiction of God

13. Depiction of God

An army like the one on the painting would have resembled the Spanish forces brought to the Netherlands by the Duke of Alba in 1567, the same year this painting was created. Ten thousand strong, they left Spain in April of 1567, and Alba led his army northward in June on what became known as “the Spanish road,” marching across the Italian Alps through Piedmont and Savoy and into Brussels on August 22.

The sea (#1) that is seen in the distance: It was from there, from the Italian coast, that the Spanish troops set off to cross the Alps, their task to drive out the heretics and crush Netherlands efforts to obtain more freedom.

No viewer of Bruegel’s painting could have failed to associate Alba’s force with both the alpine imagery and the contemporary depiction of soldiers.

 

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