Thom Gunn’s “In Santa Maria del Popolo” explores the concept of annulled existentialism through religion. The poet lingers in the “The Church of St.Mary of the People’ to visualize the celebrated painting of the transformation of Saul(who later became St.Paul).The painting is by Caravaggio or Michelangelo who founded and established the Roman school of Painting which is profoundly coloured by naturalism ,and was far removed from the ideal. The painting is hazy, the image being Saul fallen from his horse. The rays of the evening lend life to the painting and enhances the theme of transformation. The image of Saul lying on the ground emerges and the face of Saul appears to be hidden. The focus of the painter is the lifted arms of Saul raised to God in submissive surrender.

Saul who appears in a seizure seems to be kinetic while the others around him stand static. The Renaissance period marked the flourishing of art. Nevertheless, there was also the predominance of religion that relegated art irreverently to the background.This explains the phrase the sun being ”Conveniently oblique;” and also the shadowing of the painting.

The speaker deliberates on how the painter left some details deliberately missing. For instance, Ananias baptizing Saul on his conversion, and the purging of his evils. The painting only magnifies the gesture by Saul that speaks volumes It was difficult to decipher the painter behind this work of art; as this was also the painter who had delivered the city-folks like the prostitutes and cheats who were murdered for money by ruffians.  Subsequently, the speaker shifts his attention from the painting to people at prayer in the gloomy interiors of the church. He particularly notices the women who were in silent prayer in kneeling positions.

In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their world-weariness at the moment, renders them incapable of grasping what Saul really communicated. The image of Saul standing isolated was symbolic, as his followers were separated from him, in the sense that they could never truly follow him. The speaker emphatically puts forward the view that nullity is what great saint and holy priests perceive, what they radiate in the process is nothing else, but energy. The ultimate consequence is ineffectuality, coupled with a sense of nothingness, futility. Sartrean existentialism colours the shadow of the painting, the gloom of the church, and the hollowness of the act. Charles Tomlinson hits the nail on the head when he says “Gunn resolved to seek the heroic experience in Nihilism.” Martin Dodsworth in The Survival of Poetry writes of Gunn’s ‘voluntary commitment to the irrational.’

©Rukhaya MK 2007
Published earlier at Yahoo Voices in 2007
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