Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' and Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus
This painting is Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus, painted in 1601. It is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, and I saw it when I visited Rome with a friend three years ago.
By then, the painting had already held a great deal of personal significance for me for close to fifteen years. In my last year of high school, when I was sixteen years old, I took a course called Western Civilization, which (oddly enough) was based on the TV series and book Civilisation by British historian Kenneth Clark. I had never before taken a class which gave me such a good overview of the course of Western history over the last two thousand years, particularly in terms of religion, literature, art, architecture and music, and how they related to the events of history. I discovered Caravaggio and this painting through that class, as well as the paintings of JMW Turner, and Bernini's Apollo and Daphne statue, which we also saw in Rome. It was definitely a pivotal moment for me.
Seeing the painting in real life was a very moving experience. It is an incredibly powerful work, and it depicts an extremely crucial moment in one of my favourite Biblical books, the Acts of the Apostles. I'm always glad to not be disappointed when I see something like a work of art that I have waited to see for many years.
I have been thinking about the intersection between visual art and poetry: the places where they meet, or art inspired by poetry, or poetry inspired by art. I haven't reached many conclusions yet, except that the two mediums do two very different things and so it is hard to do one inspired by the other. Art is more immediate and visceral; poetry is subtle, cumulative and chronological - and even by saying that I am aware that I am simplifying far too much.
I tried to write a poem about this painting years ago, when I was about twenty. I doubt it was more than semi-successful. When I lived in Dublin and was discovering the wonderful art of Jack Yeats, W B Yeat's brother, I wrote a few poems inspired by his paintings, particularly For the Road and The Singing Horseman, both of which are in the National Gallery in Dublin. For the Road came out quite well, The Singing Horseman somewhat less so. I have a poster of his There Is No Night, which I used to go look at in the Hugh Lane Gallery. I love it but it has always bewildered me in some way I can't explain. I tried to write a poem about it - in fact, I tried on and off for at least a few years. I never really succeeded, which is still a source of frustration for me.
This is the poem 'In Santa Maria del Popolo', by Thom Gunn. Again, at this point of intersection between art and poetry, I am left uncertain. It is a rather analytical poem, more about Caravaggio's intentions and the poet's somewhat cynical questions, than about the painting itself, or the scene it depicts.
IN SANTA MARIA DEL POPOLO (Thom Gunn)