Saint Paul (Spanish: San Pablo) is a painting by Diego Velázquez that is in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. The piece was created around 1619 during the early stage of Velázquez’s artistic career before he moved to Madrid. At this stage of Velazquez’s career he was deeply influenced by Caravaggio. In the image, Saint Paul is seated holding a book, commonly referenced as a large Gospel book.
The painting was created using oil on canvas. The artist from Seville reveals his mastery of portraiture in the image of a man captured directly from nature and wrapped in a wide robe in which the folds are almost sculptural. The dramatic lighting that brings the figure into relief against a dark background is a style inherited from Tenebrism, as are the earth-tone colors commonly used by Velázquez. They present to the viewer a natural and authentic representation of the figure. The saint is sitting on a stone plinth that blends with the background area. The fingers of the left hand grasp a thick book. Perhaps to hide his limitations, Velázquez has hidden the legs and most of the hands under its folds.
According to José López-Rey, Saint Paul’s head is “sharply drawn” and the image itself is “somewhat rubbed and darkened”, a style typical of Velázquez’s early works.
According to the New Testament, Paul was traveling to Damascus when he saw a bea of light and was visited by Jesus, who struck him blind. Three days later, Paul regained his sight and began to preach Christianity to the people. In this painting, Saint Paul is depicted wearing a large brown robe to symbolize his pilgrimage from the Holy Land to Damascus. The loose and thick cloak contains numerous creases, which suggest the heaviness of the fabric draping over a reddish/brown tunic. Saint Paul is commonly drawn with a tapering beard, brown hair, and a balding forehead to signify great wisdom and learning. However, Velázquez’s image depicts Saint Paul with black hair that has a hint of grey in it, a very uncommon attribute for this figure. Velázquez’s image of Saint Paul holds a blank stare, perhaps referencing his loss of eyesight from the legend.
The text in the upper-left hand corner identifies the figure as S. PAVLVS (which means “Saint Paul” in Latin). He is depicted without the sword, his only known attribute. (If not holding a book, Saint Paul is more grimly represented with a severed head and the sword that killed him, which depicts his martyrdom.) A glowing aura, or halo, around the head of the figure symbolizes that he has a sense of holiness and was canonized as a saint. Although the aura of holiness is appropriate to the subject, the work also evokes the intellectual philosophers painted by José de Ribera. Velázquez deviated from the traditional representation of Saint Paul by drawing him with a book. The Gospel book that Saint Paul is holding symbolizes that this figure is an apostle and had a great influence on the spreading of the Christian religion.