calling of saint matthew caravaggio
Over a decade before, Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (in Italian, Matteo Contarelli) had left in his will funds and specific instructions for the decoration of a chapel based on themes related to his namesake, St Matthew. The dome of the chapel was decorated with frescoes by the late Mannerist artist Cavalier D’Arpino, Caravaggio’s former employer and one of the most popular painters in Rome at the time. But as D’Arpino became busy with royal and papal patronage, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, Caravaggio’s patron and also the prefect of the Fabbrica of St Peter’s (the Vatican office for Church property), intervened to obtain for Caravaggio his first major church commission and his first painting with more than a handful of figures.
In some ways, most of the plebeian, nearly life-sized inhabitants of Levi’s money table are the equivalent, if not modeled by those persons in other Caravaggio paintings, including Caravaggio’s famous secular genre paintings of The Cardsharps (1595).
The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the moment when Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him and become an apostle. The picture was commissioned by the will of Cardinal Matthew Contarelli, who had provided resources and specific guidelines for the decoration of a chapel based on scenes from the life of his namesake, Saint Matthew. The ceiling of the chapel had already been decorated with frescoes by the popular Mannerist painter Cavaliere d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) (1568-1640), but because he was too busy with papal work to decorate the walls, Del Monte intervened to secure the job for Caravaggio.
The Calling of Saint Matthew was painted for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it remains to this day. It hangs alongside two sister paintings, also by Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. The Calling and the Martyrdom were completed in 1600; the Inspiration not until 1602.
The two figures on the left, derived from a 1545 Hans Holbein print representing gamblers unaware of the appearance of Death, are so concerned with counting the money that they do not even notice Christ’s arrival; symbolically their inattention to Christ deprives them of the opportunity He offers for eternal life, and condemns them to death. The two boys in the center do respond, the younger one drawing back against Levi as if seeking his protection, the swaggering older one, who is armed, leaning forward a little menacingly. Saint Peter gestures firmly with his hand to calm his potential resistance. The dramatic point of the picture is that for this moment, no one does anything. Christ’s appearance is so unexpected and His gesture so commanding as to suspend action for a shocked instant, before reaction can take place. In another second, Levi will rise up and follow Christ – in fact, Christ’s feet are already turned as if to leave the room. The particular power of the picture is in this cessation of action. It utilizes the fundamentally static medium of painting to convey characteristic human indecision after a challenge or command and before reaction.
The picture is divided into two parts. The standing figures on the right form a vertical rectangle; those gathered around the table on the left a horizontal block. The costumes reinforce the contrast. Levi and his subordinates, who are involved in affairs of this world, are dressed in a contemporary mode, while the barefoot Christ and Saint Peter, who summon Levi to another life and world, appear in timeless cloaks. The two groups are also separated by a void, bridged literally and symbolically by Christ’s hand. This hand, like Adam’s in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, unifies the two parts formally and psychologically. Underlying the shallow stage-like space of the picture is a grid pattern of verticals and horizontals, which knit it together structurally.
There is some debate over which man in the picture is Saint Matthew, as the surprised gesture of the bearded man at the table can be read in two ways.
A more recent interpretation proposes that the bearded man is in fact pointing at the young man at the end of the table, whose head is slumped. In this reading, the bearded man is asking “Him?” in response to Christ’s summons, and the painting is depicting the moment immediately before a young Matthew raises his head to see Christ. Other writers describe the painting as deliberately ambiguous.
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This was Caravaggio’s first public project and if he failed, his fledgling career might never take off. He had never before painted on such a grand scale; his repertoire until this point had been limited to paintings for private devotion, scenes of everyday life, and allegories celebrating love and music. Thus, the artist needed to present The Calling of Saint Matthew in a memorable way.