A-Level: Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew, oil on canvas, c. 1599-1600 (Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome)


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi here in Rome, and we’re looking at the paintings by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:13] There are three paintings. The painting on the left shows the calling of Saint Matthew. Saint Matthew would become one of the apostles of Christ, but this is the moment just before the moment of transition that is his spiritual awakening.

Dr. Harris: [0:25] This idea of capturing the moment of spiritual awakening, a moment of conversion, was something that interested Baroque artists like Caravaggio. Here’s the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that Caravaggio has painted:

“[0:40] As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” Such a simple passage, but so profound.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] Caravaggio has given us something that is distinctly earthbound, that emits only the barest hint of the spiritual in the hairline halo above Christ’s head.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] It’s a very interesting composition because Christ, the main figure here, and Matthew, too, are both a little bit lost. Christ stands behind Saint Peter. His body is covered by Saint Peter except for his head and his right arm, which reaches out to point to Matthew.

[1:23] Then Matthew is a little bit lost among this group of five colleagues. Matthew is a tax collector, and they’re here looking at the money that they’ve collected.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] Both figures are identified by light and by gesture. The light streams in from an unseen source just above Christ’s head and moves from the upper right at a diagonal down to Matthew. Christ almost languidly extends his hand, but Matthew responds by pointing to himself with vigor, as if he’s saying, “You’ve got the wrong guy. Why would you call me?”

Dr. Harris: [1:52] “I’m a tax collector. Here I am counting my money. I’m in a tavern.” Caravaggio dressed the figures in contemporary clothing. There’s very little about this that looks like a spiritual moment.

[2:04] The art of the High Renaissance creates a sense of the divine by making figures ideally beautiful, but Caravaggio’s figures are, as you said, earthbound. They look like common people that Caravaggio might have seen on the streets of Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] This is set in a tavern, in a bar, in a lowly place.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] What’s wonderful to me is the way that Matthew is in transition. He’s pointing to himself as though saying, “It’s me that you want?”

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] How could that be?

Dr. Harris: [2:31] in total disbelief. His right hand is still reaching out to the money that he’s collected, so he’s divided in that way.

[2:39] There’s a sense of a real caught moment — the figure on the upper left is examining the coins. The figure close to us on the left is counting them with his right hand. The figure on the right corner of the table leans and looks out at something outside the space of the painting. The figure right next to Matthew has his arm on his shoulder — and yet this profound moment of spiritual transformation.

Dr. Zucker: [3:05] The characteristic that Caravaggio is most known for is his intense naturalism, and he creates the sharp contrast between light and shadow, creating a vividness and a sense that the bodies have weight and mass that is astonishingly naturalistic.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] These figures are so close to us. We feel as though we could reach out to touch them. In fact, there’s a space at the table that almost looks like it’s waiting for us. This is a painting, like so much of Baroque art, that breaks down the distance, the separation between the world of the painting and our own world.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] Look at the way that Christ reaches forward to Matthew. It is mimicking the way that God reaches out to Adam in the “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The hand is actually derived from Adam’s hand, and this is based on the idea that Christ is the second Adam.

Dr. Harris: [3:55] That Christ brings us salvation where Adam caused the fall into sin. I’m really interested in this pointing because we have Christ pointing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] We have Peter pointing.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] Only slightly more assertively than Christ does. In a way, Peter does stand between Christ and man. He is the founder of the church. Then this more forceful pointing that Matthew does.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] Then there’s also the issue of attention. Matthew is looking at Christ and Peter, but the figures at the left side don’t even seem to notice those spiritual figures, their focus is on the earthly.

[4:29] There is this wonderful contrast between those that are aware of the spiritual and those that are not. There’s so much we could talk about in this painting, but it’s important to remember that this is just one of three in this tiny little chapel.

Dr. Harris: [4:42] All dedicated to Saint Matthew.

[4:43] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew," in Smarthistory, July 17, 2017, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/caravaggio-calling-of-st-matthew-2/.