Parmigianino: The Conversion of Saul.
From the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. An Exhibition
part of the Masterpieces of World Museums at the Hermitage series
On 16 June 2008 in the Apollo Hall an opening took place for the exhibition Parmigianino: Conversion of Saul (from the Museum of Arts and History in Vienna, Austria) which is part of the Masterpieces of World Museums at the Hermitage series.
The Museum of Arts and History in Vienna owns six paintings by Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), who is known by his pseudonym, Parmigianino. One of these paintings, Conversion of Saul, exhibited in the Hermitage gives an idea of Parmigianino’s art, the most eminent mannerist painter that infused a fresh spirit into painting and drawing during the Renaissance. Parmigianino painted Conversion of Saul circa 1528. The painting was commissioned by Gian Andrea Albio, a physicist and physician.
Legend has it that Saul, an ardent persecutor of Christians, set foot in Damascus wishing to exterminate the Savior’s supporters. When he was on the way there “a great light came down from heaven” and a voice was heard that questioned him: “O Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” Blinded by the light, he was deprived of his sight until he was baptized and became a loyal follower of Christ under the name of Apostle Paul.
During the Renaissance a miracle was viewed as a “process” like any other phenomenon. But Parmigianino’s treatment of the event is that of the supernatural and irrational: if the miracle should happen, the heavens should split open and unleash the wildness of nature. Parmigianino’s art signifies a new trend in painting that appeared in approximately 1520, known now as mannerism. Its appearance is related to the greatest crisis in Italy, which touched upon every sphere of life at that time. As a consequence of this crisis Earth and man that lives on it could no longer be perceived as the center of the Universe. Although mannerism did employ the expressive means and tools of the High Renaissance, yet it had been destroying its basis little by little: strange whimsicalities replace classical clarity, as the subjective approach replaces the objective. Mannerism that appeared as a result of the crisis in the sphere of politics, economics and religion was not a decaying art. It generated some new trends in art that acquired a developed form by the early 17th century.
Until the mid 20th century Conversion of Saul was attributed to Parmigianino’s follower, Niccolo del Abate. Sources of the 16th century mentioned this painting, and this helped art historians to recognize its true author. A list that was made in 1609 preserved the precise description of this painting that runs as follows: “Saint Paul that has fallen on his back looks up into the sky with his left arm raised while the right arm is stretched upon the ground; a leaping giraffe or a horse is seen at the background of the landscape; a gilded frame, painted by Parmigianino”.
Saul is shown lying on the ground (a horseman that has fallen down from the back of the horse is a symbol of the deathly sin of false pride). It is not the expression on Saul’s face that makes us realize that he is emotionally disturbed. It is rather folds of the short tunic that are disturbed. A gesture of Saul’s hand expresses a lot feeling – it is the gesture of a man turning his ear to some sounds coming from above. Instead of presenting Christ above in the sky the painter shows us mysterious golden light that tears apart the clouds. Glimpses of this light are seen on the thick blades of grass that sway alarmingly.
The main attraction of the painting that subdues the entire space within the frame is the horse. The bridle twists like a snake emphasizing the impetuous movements of the horse. Proportions of its body are intentionally distorted – it has large hindquarters, light short legs and a very long neck. The horse’s back is not covered with a saddle but with the skin of a spotted leopard. The fierce ways of this beast imply the merciless ways of Saul: John the Theologian compared a leopard with Antichrist.
The skin of the horse resembles a marble surface, which is a typical approach of a mannerist painter who can compare the flesh of a living creature to a stone or, on the contrary, present a statue or an architectural piece as a living creature.
Parmigianino was not only a remarkable painter but also a skillful graphic artist. He made about one thousand graphic sheets. Many preliminary sketches have been preserved that paved the road to the Conversion of Saul (Courtauld Institute, London). They show clearly that the process creating the composition was likely a very lengthy one. Parmigianino initially planned to depict many figures in his painting, but he eventually came to realize that there should be only two characters in it.
No European painting, that deal with the mystical theme of Saul’s spiritual regeneration, is as unusual, refined and extravagant as Parmigianino’s work.
After the canvas was exposed to restoration, the excellent work of the painter was revealed; scales of light tones are presented masterfully: cold gray-light-blue colors on the horse’s hip, warm slightly golden colors on the leopard’s fur and dazzling white colors on the stallion’s mane. Saul’s short pink tunic absorbs the reflection of yellow that his cloak emanates, and this colorful scale is in harmony with the color of the sword hilt that had fallen from the pagan’s grip. The rays lighten just a part of the sky whereas the unlit part that is gray becomes gradually light-blue as it approaches the earth. The scene is completed by the bright deep-blue mountains that are the worthy finale to the entire panorama.
The curator of the exhibition is Tatyana Kustodieva, the Senior Researcher of the Department of Western European Art of the State Hermitage. The State Hermitage editorial office has prepared an illustrated booklet to accompany the exhibition that is written by Tatyana Kustodieva.