“The Calling of St. Matthew”
Artist: Michelangelo Caravaggio
Location: San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 322 cm × 340 cm (127 in × 130 in)
Caravaggio was born on September 29, 1571 in the city of Milan to an architect-decorator father. He studied as a painter under Simone Peterzano, who had trained under the master painter Titian. Caravaggio moved to Rome in his early twenties to paint religious art that was being widely commissioned as an effort of the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church. He introduced a very characteristic and new style that involved naturalism accentuated with a very powerful use of chiarascuro that gave his paintings a very theatrical and dramatic feel. Caravaggio went on to be considered by many as “The Most Famous Painter in Rome” and produced a large number of religious paintings before his early death in 1610.
His work in San Luigi was Caravaggio’s first major church commission, and it was Cardinal Francesco del Monte that intervened and made it possible for him to have the opportunity. The “Calling of St. Matthew” is the first of a series of three images located behind the altar of the church; following it are “The Inspiration of St. Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” all painted works of Caravaggio.
The painting depicts a scene from the New Testament, in Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 9:9 reads, “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” The painting captures this exact moment when Jesus reaches out his hand and calls on Matthew, who is sitting at a table with other tax collectors, to follow him. The already-called apostle Peter has also entered the room with Christ in the scene, and he also points out to the group of men in an effort to calm the surprised men and show his support of Jesus’ words. The pointed finger of Christ is an allusion to the pointed finger of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which suggests a direct connection between Jesus and God the Father, and could also be Caravaggio’s way of praising Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
Though one of the men sitting at the table is definitely Matthew, the specific identity of the saint among the group not known for certain. There is some debate as to which man is Matthew. Historically, most have said that the bearded man is Matthew, and that he is pointing to himself as if to say, “Me?” in response to Christ’s calling and outstretched arm. However, some suggest in another new interpretation of the image that the bearded man is instead pointing to the man sitting to his right (our left), in which case he would be saying “Him?” rather than “Me?” This man, at the left of the painting, has his head down, suggesting the possibility of his pensive reaction to Christ’s call or the moment right before he notices Christ’s entrance into the room.
All of Caravaggio’s works are highly representative of the Baroque movement, as the artist himself is considered to be one of the leaders of Catholic Baroque (alongside Bernini). The most distinctive feature of his art, and especially in this painting, is the use of tenebrism, which is stark chiaroscuro. The differences between light and dark in The Calling of St. Matthew is extremely clear, and Caravaggio uses this tenebrism to place a special emphasis on certain parts of the painting. The light comes in from the right side of the painting, illuminates the side of Jesus’ face, and illuminates the faces of those sitting at the table, namely the face of St. Matthew (we’ll go with the first interpretation of Matthew’s identity, as it is most likely the more accurate one). The light adds to the momentary action of Matthew’s call, and the illumination of his face makes his surprised and doubtful expression very clear and visible. The light and the presence of Christ are also representative of the new spiritual life in which Matthew is about to engage, while the other darkened figures and objects (money on the table) represent the past, earthly life. In addition to the use of the tenebrism technique, the emotion invoked by the drama of the scene makes this painting very Baroque. The painting depicts a specific moment in time, in which Jesus explodes into the room with a ray of light, and Matthew is forced to make a decision that will forevermore effect the course of his life: to follow Jesus or not? Caravaggio, through the use of tenebrism, striking contrasts, and dynamic movement in the scene creates a work that is extremely emotional and dramatic, making his work here a symbol of the Baroque movement.
Personally, I love Caravaggio. I think that he is an artistic genius, and his paintings are easily some of my favorites among all of the artwork that I’ve ever seen. His ability to capture the intensity of one scene, especially here in this painting, is unparalleled. Though emotionally charged, this work is easy on the eyes because its realism allows us to engage in the scene and become involved with the activity being portrayed. It gives me an entirely new perspective on the short passage in Matthew 9 that I’ve so often overlooked, and it brings the scene to life in a way that I’ve never before experienced.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (Italian painter, 1571-1610)”. Getty.edu. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
Caravaggio”. Hort.purdue.edu. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past, Art Present, 4th ed. p.344-345
Doyle, Humanities 300 Lecture.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
John L. Varriano, Caravaggio: The Art of Realism (Penn State Press, 2006), p.111.
Rosa Giorgi, “Caravaggio: Master of light and dark – his life in paintings”, p.12.