The digital scriptorium is an expanding image database that lets scholars and members of the public take a look at some beautiful medieval and renaissance manuscripts held in libraries and archives across the USA. Two fifteenth-century Italian manuscripts, held in the Free Library of Philadelhia are particularly exciting for our project, as they contain elaborate decorated initials, featuring images of the conversion of St Paul. The image at the top of this post comes from a Latin choir book, and shows the moment at which Saul, a Pharisee engaged in the persecution of Christians, after Christ’s crucifixion, was blinded by a light from heaven and fell upon the earth, ears filled with a voice crying ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’. Paul’s story is told three times in The Acts of the Apostles, which tell us that he remained blind for three days, neither eating nor drinking until he was cured by Ananias, a Christian.
The conversion of Paul was a particularly important subject for painters during the Renaissance, and was famously depicted by Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Camilo, Giovanni Bellini, Fra Angelico, Fra Bartolomeo, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo. Nearly all of these pictures depict the moment shown in these initials: Paul falling from his horse on the road to Damascus. Though the Bible does not specify that Paul was on horseback, painters were keen to stress his military connections (see the armour, spurs and sword in the fine image above). More than this, it was considered particularly difficult to accurately capture the movement and muscles of a horse’s flanks, so that this subject was an opportunity to show off considerable artistic skill. The horse in the initial above (only a few centimetres in height, as the ruler shows) is a particularly fine miniature, and the horseback observer in the right-hand side of the ‘d’, allows for another moment of virtuoso illustration.
A second image, this one from the antiphon (a sung set of responses) for the feast of the conversion of St Paul, offers a more pastoral and less militarised version of the scene. Interestingly, this initial depicts Christ as a face and source of light, whilst the image above represents Christ as a divine man.
Paul’s conversion offered a powerful model for early modern Christians, but few claim to have experienced as immediate or intense a revelation. Both Protestants and Catholics felt the need to negotiate very carefully between the claims of reason, and an understanding of divine power, and between the felt experience of divine illumination. Intriguingly, though, Paul’s conversion suggests the importance of the senses and the body to the experience of faith: he first saw a divine light, then heard a voice, and then was robbed of his sight and appetite for three days, whilst he fed on the voice and vision of Christ. Many early modern believers also felt their religion in the body, and one of the aims of the project is to chart the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibility of conversion.