caravaggio st matthew
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. 
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 figure in the background, about left-centre and behind the assassin, is a self-portrait by Caravaggio.
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (Italian: Martirio di San Matteo; 1599–1600) is a painting by the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It is located in the Contarelli Chapel of the church of the French congregation San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it hangs opposite The Calling of Saint Matthew and beside the altarpiece The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, both by Caravaggio. It was the first of the three to be installed in the chapel, in July 1600.
In keeping with his plain, unvarnished aesthetics, Caravaggio borrows from his earlier genre painting (The Cardsharps, The Fortune-Teller), and sets the scene in what appears to be a tavern, rather than a counting house or office. He may have modelled it on earlier examples of Northern Renaissance art – by Hans Holbein and others – featuring money lenders seated around a table. In addition, he introduces some very human interplay into the situation. To begin with, when he sees Christ pointing at him, Levi responds with a gesture, as if to say “Me?” indicating his uncertainty whether he is being addressed, or the younger man slumped on his right. In addition, the ray of light illuminating their faces, draws attention to the two youths, who appear rather lost in this group of older men. While one of them draws back in apprehension and looks to his older neighbour for protection, the other has turned to confront Christ, causing Saint Peter to gesture firmly for calm. Through the visual contrast between their reactions, Caravaggio displays psychological insight into two possible patterns of human behaviour in the same situation.
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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.
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.
Art historians have noted a similarity in the staging of Caravaggio’s tax collectors in The Calling of St. Matthew and the gamblers found in the woodcarving prints of the German artist. In The Gambler (1545), one man is so preoccupied by counting his ill-gotten gains he doesn’t notice that death and the devil have come to claim one of his friends. It has been suggested Caravaggio’s painting was a reversal, showing one greedy tax collector so focused on his money he doesn’t notice the arrival of Jesus.
An exhibit in 2011 in Rome’s Palazzo Venezia explored the theory that Caravaggio used the optical device to project an image onto the canvas to allow him to trace out his piece. It’s speculated that this technique explains why the maybe-Matthew is pointing with his left hand—the projected image would have been reversed.