In September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi, Pope Clement VIII’s treasurer-general, commissioned three paintings for a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. He chose the stellar artists of the day: Annibale Caracci for an “Assumption of the Virgin,” that hangs over the altar. Also Michelangelo Merisi – now established as Caravaggio, after his hometown near Milan, to paint a “Crucifixion of Peter” and a “Conversion of Saul” on the side walls. The 40-year old Caracci painted in the style of the High Renaissance grandeur; Caravaggio, at 29, was a meteorically rising star who recently created a sensation with a startlingly realistic cycle of paintings telling the story of St. Matthew. Cerasi died before completion of the chapel in 1601, but he got more than his money’s worth. These commissions are among the key works of the Italian Baroque style.
Entering the Santa Maria del Popolo and walking towards the Cerasi chapel, to the left of the apse, filled with exquisite Renaissance tombs, the Virgin with her outstretched arms ascending to heaven meaning to be a comfort, but the fierce canvases on the sidewalls assert themselves, dominating the narrow space.
The painting on the left chapel wall depicts the martyrdom of St. Peter by crucifixion – Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not imitate his mentor, Christ, hence he is depicted upside-down. The large canvas shows Romans, their faces shielded, struggling to erect the cross of the elderly but muscular Saint. Peter is heavier than his aged body would suggest, and his lifting requires the efforts of three men, as if the crime they perpetrate already weighs on them. The scene, set on some stony field, is grim. The dark, impenetrable background draws the eye to the sharply illuminated figures who remind us, through the banal ugliness of their actions and movements – note the filthy feet of the lower figure – that the death of the apostle was not a heroic drama, but a wretched and humiliating execution.
‘The Conversion of Saul’ on the opposite wall recounts the day that the apostle Paul was traveling from Damascus and “felled by light from the heavens above the brightness of the sun”; blinded, Saul heard Jesus telling him that he had been chosen as his minister. Caravaggio’s version of the scene is a masterstroke of economy, the transfiguring moment described in the book of Acts embodied solely by Saul, his mount, and a half-concealed elderly groom, the trio packed into the available space. Saul spills into the corner of the scene – toward the viewer – oblivious of the massive horse that all but fills the canvas, just as the groom is oblivious to Saul’s transformation. The great white shape of the horse’s massive shoulder and foreleg announces itself as a sort of lightning bolt, poised above the enraptured Saul. In the guise of naturalism, Caravaggio has created a visual metaphor for transfiguration. Miraculous enlightenment embodied by apparently everyday experience, this treasure subtly holds its secrets from the casual observer, tantalizing the reverent mind to contemplation.
The history behind the commission of these paintings is no less dramatic than the images themselves. The original works rejected by the church, passed into the private collection of Cardinal Sannessio. Several modern scholars have speculated that Sannessio may have taken advantage of Cerasi’s sudden death to seize pictures by Rome’s famous new painter.