On his way to Damascus, Saul, a cruel persecutor of Early Christians, had a vision: a divine light blew him from his horse and turned him blind, while he was able to converse with God. Saul converted to Christianity, and became one its most important early leaders: he is known as Saint Paul or Paul the Apostle. Although he never met Jesus he is called the thirteenth Apostle.
Benjamin Cuyp, who belonged to an important family of 17th century painters from Dordrecht, was strongly influenced by Rembrandt. He died already before turning 40.
Cuyp’s austere approach of our subject is rather unique: Saul and his military escort are painted against an ochre background, as if amidst a desert storm, where you see no houses, trees or landscape; this enhances our emotional experience of what happened to them.
About Benjamin Gerritsz. Cuyp
Dordrecht 1612 – 1652 Dordrecht
Versatile painter of genre scenes, religious, mythological and allegorical subjects, battle scenes and of landscapes.
Member of the most important family of painters from Dordrecht.
Benjamin was the youngest son of the second marriage of the glass-painter Gerrit Gerritsz. Cuyp.
According to the Dutch painters’ biographer, Arnold Houbraken in his “De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen”, published in 1718, Benjamin was a pupil of his older step-brother Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (1594 – 1651/52), together with his cousin Aelbert Cuyp (1620 – 1691).
Jacob is best known for his portraits, Aelbert for his landscapes.
Jacob also painted still lifes, genre scenes, religious and mythological subjects, his son Aelbert occasionally painted portraits, stable interiors and biblical subjects.
Benjamin, although not known as a pupil of Rembrandt, was clearly influenced by him, especially in his religious subjects in his handling of claire-obscure (chiaroscuro), in his sketchy technique with broad brushstrokes and ochre-brown-yellow tonalities.
Our painter still lived in Dordrecht at the end of 1641. But after that date he developed his career mainly outside his native town: in 1643 he is documented at The Hague (where he probably settled the year before), in 1645 he was in Utrecht. He remained here until his return to Dordrecht, probably shortly before his early death, unmarried, at the age of 39 in 1652.
Thanks to his rapid technique and an almost monochrome colour pallet he managed to produce a large number of paintings before his premature death.
About the Conversion of Saint Paul
Saul of Tarsus, later called Paul the Apostle, was originally a Pharisee who intensely persecuted the early Christians. Around 33 à 36 AD he was miraculously converted to Christianism on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Although in the Bible (Pauline epistles) he refers to himself as an Apostle he was not one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ. Paul the Apostle actually never even met Jesus.
During this journey to Damascus, where he wanted to arrest some more followers of Christ, Saul saw a blinding light, fell on the ground and communicated directly with Jesus. Saul remained blind, but Christ told him to continue his voyage to Damascus. Anaias of Damascus was sent by Jesus to restore his sight and provided him with additional instructions. Saul was then baptised and he named himself Paul the Apostle.
The Conversion of Paul was a popular subject in 16th and 17th century painting.
About our painting
Benjamin Cuyp’s simple biblical figures often stand out in a typical Northern Caravaggesque way against a strong, harsh beam of divine light. This was the case in his numerous Adorations of the shepherds and also in our Conversion of Saul/Paul, of which I know three other compositions:
- a panel painting of similar dimensions as ours, at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg,
- a panel painting of similar dimensions as ours, unsold at Sotheby’s London, 22/04/04
- a large canvas sold at Christie’s New York, 9/10/91.
Cuyp chose to represent biblical subjects with simple people, not those with kings and queens. His figures spoke directly to their audience in their surprise at the divine intervention: a blast of light that initiated a spiritual transformation. He painted their strong emotions in a very realistic, easily understandable way. Typical of the 1630s and early 1640s is his limited use of colours: he favours the brownish, ochre tonalities. The beauty of our scene resides also in the fact that Cuyp has not painted any other “disturbing” features around Saul and his stunned company: there are no trees, no buildings, hardly any landscape features. It is as if they stand out in a desert storm. This austerity, that enhances the religious and psychological experience of the viewers, is rather unique in 17th century painting.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a great, almost monochrome painting, full of strong emotions.