St. Paul was such an influential figure that the Church celebrates his conversion each year on January 25. The dramatic event has captured the imagination of artist’s through the ages, but why have their visions differed from what’s actually written in scripture?
Around the year 36 A.D, Saul was en route to Damascus with letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest Christians living there. But it was on this fateful trip that Saul had an encounter that would make him embrace the belief he had dedicated to fight against.
While he was almost at the end of his journey, an intense light appeared around Saul and he fell to the ground. He heard Jesus say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus mystically identified himself with his followers—the very group of people Saul had been persecuting and hunting down like criminals.
Saul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus led to a sudden and dramatic conversion never before seen in Christianity. Paul now considered himself equal with the remaining 11 disciples who interacted with Jesus in person.
Paul’s conversion is mentioned in his own letters as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. In all instances, it is described as being miraculous. But, contrary to popular notions and artistic depictions, none of the scriptural accounts include him falling from a horse.
Going the Distance!
After the martyrdom of Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem and sought refuge in Damascus. Saul felt it was his duty to track them down:
“Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.”—Acts 9:1
The controversial question is whether Paul made this journey on foot—the most common mode of transportation in first century Palestine—or on horseback.
The distance from Jerusalem-where Paul received the authority to round up Christians-to Damascus-where the Christians sought refuge- is approximately 130 miles (209 km). Some scholars hold that the distance was too far for foot travel, about a five-day journey. The delay would give Christians ample time to flee. In addition, Paul’s status as a member of the Pharisees, and most likely of the Sanhedrin, would almost demand he ride on horseback. Although this is scholarly speculation, what is certain is that the Scriptures make no mention of a horse.
Why a Horse?
In the most detailed account of Saul’s conversion, a bright light and a booming voice knocks him to the ground. Absent from the vivid description is the mention of the Apostle to the Gentiles falling from a horse. In fact, the narration continues that he was struck blind and was led by the hand and brought to Damascus. If there were a horse, it would be more practical to put Paul on it and lead the horse to Damascus instead.
Nonetheless, many artists through the ages have depicted St. Paul falling off a horse at his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus—despite the absence of textual evidence. This interesting fact may be due to the popularity of the destrier—one of the most revered horses during the early Middle Ages.
The horse had a dense body, broad back and powerful hind-quarters needed to carry a knight and his heavy armor into battle. It was trained for warfare and able to respond to commands from leg pressure rather than reins since a knight needed both hands for his weapon and shield.
The horse was also taught to trample the enemy and bite and kick on command. The fast, agile and tall steed was referred to in French as the grand cheval—in English, the great horse or high horse. The animal’s brawn, however, came at a price— costing as much as a small airplane would today.
The destrier became a status symbol. Whoever rode one in public was important, but often thought of as pompous. This gave rise to the artistic tradition of representing pride as a falling horseman and gave us the phrase being knocked off your high horse to refer to a person who has been humbled.
The destrier may very well be the source for depictions of St. Paul being flung from a sizable horse despite there being no mention of it in Sacred Scripture. Artists chose to symbolically represent the persecutor’s arrogance, pride and subsequent humility with a long fall off a tall horse.