"Why have you put a horse in the middle, and Saint Paul on the ground?"
"Is the horse God?"
"No, but he stands in God's light!"
This rather spirited exchange took place in 1601, between an exasperated church official and a painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
He was the painter of unwashed saints, androgynous angels and sacred peasants. Caravaggio found religion in the streets, using prostitutes to model his Virgins, painting his icons with scarred faces and clothing them in rags. He combined religion with realism and was the despair of his patrons, who lived in the Vatican and slept in the arms of their courtesans.
Caravaggio saw holiness in poverty and drunkenness, in alleys and brothels: the protectorates of humanity. He painted shadows with illegal embraces like melting velvet and a golden, reverent light as rich as honey. He created procuresses and cardsharps with the same devotion as he would a Madonna.
In Caravaggio's eyes, animals were blessed as equally as men. This belief added to his portfolio of scandalous art, and made this painting an unacceptable effort. It is called 'Conversion On The Way To Damascus' and depicts the moment when Paul hears the Lord speaking to him, and slips from his horse's back, stunned and transported.
This horse was not a carrier of emperors; it had never borne a king. This was not Napoleon's wild mount, the color of thunder; nor was it Charles I's posturing equine courtier. This was not the granite muscle twisting beneath the stirrups of Marcus Aurelius. This was not the animal that pulled Athena's blue chariot above her olive groves, attended by owls and stars.
Instead, Caravaggio chose an animal of the fields to share Paul's glory – the piebald spreading across its broad back like continents, the thick knots of muscle forming low mountains of tendon, skin and blood. This horse stands tall and exalted like a cathedral, and emerges from the shadows like a slow and gallant ship.
With a gentle, calming eye it looks down on Paul – paralyzed in his convulsion and conversion. Patiently and calmly it partakes in the illumination that suffuses the dark rivulets of muscle with warmth. As its head recedes into the closeness of the stable, all that remains is the silver tracing of the snaffle, glittering like planets in the night.
Caravaggio was a dangerous man. He was a brawler and braggart. A sword dragged from his waist, piercing the ground with his dares and his duels. But – most infamous of all – he had the audacity of honesty. He dared to bathe his creatures in a sublime light and he would not deny any animal its mute nobility.