This text on Caravaggio was written by Stineke Dirkzwager, not me, and published here with her permission.
We take the metro from the Termini to the Piazza del Popolo and get off at Flaminio. Standing in the Piazza Santa Maria del Popolo, you will see to the right of the city gate the church by the same name that we are going to visit.
First we will visit the Santa Maria del Popolo. There is much to see in this church, but I’m afraid we will only have time for the Cerasi Chapel. The emperor Nero reportedly once lay buried at the site where this church was built. Before construction began, Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) had all human remains that were found at the site thrown into the Tiber. The church was reconstructed many times in the following centuries. The current version mainly dates from the 15th century with few later additions by Bramante and Bernini (for example in the facade). Pope Sixtus IV had a monastery built next to the church and gave both to the Augustinian friars. Maarten Luther stayed at this monastery in 1511.
You and Ruud already visited this church to see Bernini’s statues. Today we are going to take a look at the work of the painter Caravaggio in the Cerasi chapel.
When Caravaggio had only just completed the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel (in the San Luigi dei Francesi), which we will see later, Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi commissioned him to paint two paintings for his funerary chapel.
“He [Tiberio Cerasi] commissioned Caravaggio to paint two large cypress panels, ten palms high and eight palms wide, representing the conversion of Saint Paul and the martyrdom of Saint Peter within eight months for the price of 400 scudi. The contract was signed on 24 September 1600. Caravaggio was still working on the paintings at the time when Tiberio Cerasi died.” Source Wikipedia
Tiberio Cerasi wanted the two hottest painters in town to decorate his chapel: Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio. Annibale was commissioned to paint the altarpiece and the frescos (painted later by Giovanni Battista Ricci) the vault. The altarpiece depicts the assumption of the Virgin Mary (the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary) and the paintings on the side walls are of St Peter and St Paul, Rome’s patron saints.
When we get there I will explain the extent to which these two painters influenced each other during this assignment.
According to Baglione, Caravaggio made earlier versions of both paintings. The originals were painted on cypress panels as stipulated in the contract: ‘duo quadra cupressis…in altero videlicet misterium conversionis sanctorum Pauli, et in alterum martyrium Petri apostolorum’. (two paintings of cypress, the one showing the miracle of the conversion of St Paul, the other the martyrdom of St Peter (from Treffers p. 113).
Caravaggio was given eight months to complete the assignment. The two paintings currently hanging in the chapel were painted on canvas. There is in fact a ‘Conversion of St Paul on cypress panels; it is very well possible that the initial versions were rejected by Cerasi, as is often thought. He never saw the eventual paintings because he died prematurely.
The conversion of St Paul is described in Acts of the Apostles (9: 3 -9). The Roman official Saulus is on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. Suddenly, he is blinded by a divine light and falls off his horse. The voice of Christ rings in his ears, “Saulus, Saulus, why do you persecute me”. He remains blind for three days, after which he converts, is baptised as Paul and begins to preach. In the first version Caravaggio expressed the tumultuous confusion surrounding St Paul’s conversion.
The composition is reminiscent of the Martyrdom of St Matthew that we will see in the Contarelli Chapel. The second version, which is here, is totally different. There is no background, hardly any dynamic. Most of the attention is actually focused on the horse, which looks rather forlorn. The main element is the light, which comes from the top right corner and falls on the face and body of the saint. His arms are spread out, a reference to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
Across from the Conversion of St Paul hangs the Crucifixion of St Peter. St Peter was crucified upside down because he believed he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus. There are no witnesses to the crucifixion. All attention is focused on the physical and emotional ordeal of St Peter. His face is the only one visible; his gaze follows his left arm toward the altar, where salvation can be found.
This composition is probably based on the first version of the crucifixion of St Peter, or so Treffers says. In his composition, Caravaggio took the position of the viewer into consideration. The chapel is quite narrow, which is why he placed the apostles diagonally in the image plane. It seems like the buttocks and the dirty feet of the Crucifixion are shoved into your face. Some people have argued that the buttocks are a sneer at Annibale (Hibbard page 136), even though Caravaggio did appreciate his competitors work, whom he considered a worthy adversary.