Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew

The artist Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St Matthew’ is a thought provoking work by this artistic master of light and darkness.

This painting can be found in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of St Louis of France (San Luigi dei Francesi) just 2 minutes walk from the Pantheon and on our Caravaggio Tour.  The other two paintings in the side chapel are entitled the Inspiration of St Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St Matthew.  All three were painted by Caravaggio under the commission of the French Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian).

The Feast of St Matthew the Apostle is held on 21st September and thus in his honour we will look at Caravaggio’s focus on the conversion and calling of St Matthew as he presented it in his artistic masterpiece in 1599.

The Painting: ‘Calling of St Matthew’

The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio
The Calling of St Matthew by Caravaggio

Points to note about the painting:

  • Christ is on the far right of the painting pointing to St Matthew with his hand under the wooden Cross of the window.
  • Christ’s hand is the same hand as Adam as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel as he encounters God.  Christ is the Second Adam.
  • St Peter is in the foreground in front of Christ and is facing Christ.  This position speaks of the role of St Peter as the Vicar of Christ acting between Christ and us the audience to the scene
  • The hand of St Peter also mimics the hand of Christ referring to St Peter as Christ’s presence in the world mirroring Jesus.  He too is pointing at Matthew which refers to the authority of the Church to call on Christs behalf even today
  • Although there is a window, the light is flooding in from Christ into the room which speaks of the Divine bursting into the darkness of human life.
  • The light mainly illumines the Wooden Cross in the window referring to the salvific sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb of Christ on Calvary.  What remains falls directly on Matthew adding weight to the message that the Divine was calling/interacting with Matthew.
  • The character of Christ and St Peter are both barefoot which speaks of the simplicity and poverty that Christ and St Peter taught and the line from the psalms “Blessed are the feet of those who bear the Gospel”.  Again St Peter has the same lack of shoes as Christ reinforcing the mirroring of the two.  In contrast however, the other men in the room are dressed ostentatiously in fine clothing.
  • Matthew was a tax collector and the characters counting the money – almost engrossed with it refers to man being taken up with the world and money and unable to see God.
  • The scene seems to be within a bar or tavern with the other characters appearing unsavoury and almost criminal.  They all have weapons and are counting piles of money.  It is into this squalid dark environment that Christ brings light of self awareness of the filth present that is a precursor to conversion.
  • This interplay with light and darkness also reminds the viewer of the conversion of St Paul who was thrust in darkeness until his conversion brought back his sight.
  • There is debate about which character is St Matthew.  Most commentators say it is the old man who is pointing to himself in disbelief.  Others say that Matthew is the man with his head engrossed in the piles of money with the old man pointing to him.  Caravaggio has purposefully painted this with ambiguity and that in itself is something to ponder.
  • This time, the third pointing hand in the picture is not the hand of Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, but instead is the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel.  This straight finger almost straining again speaks of God calling and straining and yearning for man to hear His call.
  • What other things do you notice from the painting?  Tell us in the comments below.

The Artist: Caravaggio

  • Born in 1571, he was the most famous painter in Rome from 1600.
  • His success began with his painting of the Calling of St Matthew in 1599.
  • Was influential in the movement from Mannerism to Radical Naturalism that had a major effect of Baroque art using chiarascuro to use light and dark to magnificent effect (see the Baroque Churches Tour)
  • Caravaggio handled the success that came after the Calling of St Matthew very badly.  In 1604 it was written of him “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.”1
  • On 29 May 1606, he killed a young man in a brawl, Ranuccio Tomassoni2, and fled Rome with a price on his head and the Pope pronounced the death penalty against him.
  • In 1608 he was involved in another brawl in Malta and another in Naples in 1609 in which he was seriously injured.
  • At the age of 38 he died under mysterious circumstances in Tuscany whilst on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.
Caravaggio
Caravaggio

 

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Footnotes

  1. Floris Claes van Dijk, a contemporary of Caravaggio in Rome in 1601, quoted in John Gash, “Caravaggio”, p.13. The quotation originates in Karel van Mander‘s Het Schilder-Boek of 1604, translated in full in Howard Hibbard, “Caravaggio”. The first reference to Caravaggio in a contemporary document from Rome is the listing of his name, with that of Prospero Orsi as his partner, as an ‘assistente’ in a procession in October 1594 in honour of St. Luke (see H. Waga “Vita nota e ignota dei virtuosi al Pantheon” Rome 1992, Appendix I, pp.219 and 220ff). The earliest informative account of his life in the city is a court transcript dated 11 July 1597, when Caravaggio and Prospero Orsi were witnesses to a crime near San Luigi de’ Francesi.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravaggio

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