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“Realizing” Paul's Visions: The New Testament, Caravaggio, and Paxton's Frailty

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image of Biblical Interpretation

This essay examines three different attempts to realize visionary experiences aesthetically: New Testament authors' depictions of Paul's conversion; Caravaggio's paintings of the same; and Bill Paxton's cinematic depiction of the horrific visions of a modern day seer in Frailty. The resulting aesthetic objects are not all realistic, but they all have the potential for an imperial impact upon their audiences' realities. The New Testament accounts of Paul's conversion are not realistic. They are mythic assertions of divine authority demanding obedient belief. Bill Paxton's Frailty contemporizes similar demands in its horrifying account of apocalyptic visionaries and violence. While the film does not offer a specific interpretation of Paul's conversion, its realization of apocalyptic visions raises important reservations about any imperialist vision, even that of the canon. By contrast, Caravaggio's paintings of Paul's conversion are far less imperialistic. While the chapel location of and the use of light within the second Conversion of St. Paul confer mythic authority upon it, the realistic, contemporizing of the episode in the painting itself demands interpretation, not simple belief. Before it, one is responsible for what one chooses to believe more obviously than one is before the New Testament accounts of Paul's conversion or the visions of Paxton's Frailty.

Affiliations: 1: Methodist College


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