A Leyden Take on Conversion

Last Spring, the museum De Lakenhal in Leiden hosted the exhibition Lucas van Leyden and the Renaissance, featuring prints, drawings and paintings by the Dutch engraver Van Leyden (1494-1533) and his colleagues, including Albrecht Dürer and Marcantonio Raimondi. In addition to showing the work of the leading Renaissance artist of the Northern Netherlands, the purpose of the display was to present it in the context of the art of his contemporaries.

A particularly fascinating work on display was the engraving of the conversion of Paul (1509). Paul himself describes this moment as a divine call inciting him to quit his zealous persecution of the followers of Christ to spread Jesus’ gospel (Galatians 1:11-16). From Luke’s descriptions in Acts 9: 1-9 we learn that he was also blinded by a thunderbolt. In the engraving we see both the instance Paul is struck by divine lightning (and probably hearing God’s voice) and his subsequent suffering from blindness. Yet rather than zooming in on the first moment, the spectacular image that was commonly used to portray Paul’s conversion, Van Leyden decided to relegate this aspect to the margin of the engraving and put in the foreground Paul’s vulnerability, the stage at which he is wholly dependent on his travelling companions to lead him to Damascus. According to the exhibition catalogue, it is likely that this aspect of Paul’s conversion had never been depicted before.

As such, Van Leyden’s work of art raises interesting ideas about his understanding of conversion. The artist seems to have wanted to emphasize that Paul’s conversion was not an instant transformation as is suggested by contemporary iconography, but a gradual  process that required humility and submission. Indeed, the engraving is also relevant as a visual conversion narrative, capturing a sequence of stages. Viewers are invited to fill in the gaps in Van Leyden’s account, the way in which Paul was helped on his feet, for instance, and the subject of the conversation between the knight and the man with the prominent hat, who feature so centrally in the engraving. Focusing on Paul’s grappling with blindness, moreover, Van Leyden underlines the interiority of conversion. His embrace of the gospel may have been caused by the external forces of a thunderbolt and a divine voice, but the actual work is done by a process of internal struggle and contemplation. It is probably no coincidence that the Dutch word inkeer,  the very term Van Leyden was likely to have in mind when producing the work, literally means a turn to one’s inside or one’s interiority.

We are keen to hear your views on what we post here. Questions and comments are very welcome. And if there's something you think we should write about, leave a comment or send us an email (conversionnarratives@york.ac.uk).

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