calling of saint matthew
Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602) Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.
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The Calling hangs opposite The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. While the Martyrdom was probably the first to be started, the Calling was, by report, the first to be completed. The commission for these two lateral paintings — the Calling and the Martyrdom — is dated July 1599, and final payment was made in July 1600. Between the two, at the altar, is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602).
Most writers on the Calling assume Saint Matthew to be the bearded man, and see him to be pointing at himself, as if to ask “Me?” in response to Christ’s summons. This theory is strengthened when one takes into consideration the other two works in this series, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The bearded man who models as Saint Matthew appears in all three works, with him unequivocally playing the role of Saint Matthew in both the “Inspiration” and the “Martyrdom”.
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 subject traditionally was represented either indoors or out; sometimes Saint Matthew is shown inside a building, with Christ outside (following the Biblical text) summoning him through a window. Both before and after Caravaggio the subject was often used as a pretext for anecdotal genre paintings. Caravaggio may well have been familiar with earlier Netherlandish paintings of money lenders or of gamblers seated around a table like Saint Matthew and his associates.
Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces
Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew was executed for the left wall of the Contarelli chapel in the French church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli had saved for years to pay for the decoration of his chapel with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew, his namesake.
Caravaggio’s painting shows a group of tax collectors gathered around a table in a dimly lit, ordinary room. A dash of light sweeps the canvas from right to left and illuminates the scene, creating Caravaggio’s signature lighting technique known as chiaroscuro (the contrast of light and shadow). Three of the five tax collectors are looking up in surprise as the sudden appearance of Jesus Christ and Saint Peter has broken up the monotony of daily life. Jesus’ open mouth suggests that he is speaking the words ‘follow me,’ but who is he making this request of? The outstretched arms of both Christ and Peter lead our eye to an older bearded man, Matthew, who points to himself as if to say, ‘Who, me?’ in reaction to Jesus’ invitation. The young man at the far left end of the table and the older man who stands over him might represent the opposite reaction that one should have toward Jesus: uninterested, unresponsive, and wrapped up in the importance of worldly affairs.
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