how does caravaggio draw attention to the figure of christ in the calling of st. matthew
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 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).
As he would do in much of his Christian art, Caravaggio conveys the sacred quality of the scene through a series of informal images. Here, for instance, the dandyish tax-collector and his fashionably-dressed associates – all busily counting the day’s proceeds – are contrasted with the barefoot Christ. So as well as casting his gaze on a sinner like Levi, Jesus is shown to shine the cleansing light of faith into Levi’s dark habitat of financial greed. Notice, for example, how Levi keeps his right hand on the coin he was counting before being interrupted by Christ. The Church saw Christ as a second Adam, a view acknowledged by the fact that Christ’s gesture as he indicates Levi, is almost identical to Adam’s gesture in The Creation of Adam (1511), part of the Genesis Fresco in the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo. Thus, not unlike the scene over the dinner table, portrayed in Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, London), Caravaggio shows us that miracles occur in the midst of the most mundane situations.
Caravaggio, one of the best artists of all time, is best known for his highly realistic style of Baroque painting which – together with the classicism of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) – effectively buried the artificial idiom of Mannerism and revitalized large scale religious art in Rome and Naples. Although cursed with a violent nature, Caravaggio was one of the most influential Italian artists of the 17th century. Orphaned by the plague in 1584, he learned painting in Milan from Simone Peterzano, and around 1592 moved to Rome where – thanks to genre paintings like The Cardsharps (1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth) – he rapidly acquired several patrons, one of whom – Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte – helped him to gain his first major public commission for the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel, in San Luigi dei Francesi. It involved two pictures: The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600) and The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600). Both works were an immediate success, and were followed by a series of masterpieces that made him the most exciting painter of religious paintings in Rome. What made Caravaggio so unique, was the true-life naturalism that made his figures seem completely real. Unfortunately, some conservative ecclesiastics considered his style of painting to be too vulgar, although it was much sought after by art collectors and other painters. After his death, his signature style of painting – based on his use of tenebrism and chiaroscuro – would become known as Caravaggism and influence painters throughout Europe.
The oil painting was commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it has been proudly exhibited since its completion, probably in 1599 and 1600.
The Calling of St. Matthew was one of three paintings Caravaggio created for the chapel, all of which centered on the apostle. The Inspiration of St. Matthew presents the sain at work on his Gospel, while The Martyrdom of St. Matthew shows his murder at the orders of the king of Ethiopia.
Caravaggio represented the event as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The sequence of actions before and after this moment can be easily and convincingly re-created. The tax-gatherer Levi (Saint Matthew’s name before he became the apostle) was seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day’s proceeds, the group lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, His eyes veiled, with His halo the only hint of divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of His right hand, all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor, summons Levi. Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say, “Who, me?”, his right hand remaining on the coin he had been counting before Christ’s entrance.
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 Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel are all situated in the dimly lit Contarelli Chapel. To see these paintings, the viewer had to make an effort to go directly to the Chapel in able to discern the specific details and subject matter of each painting. The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew appear on the lateral walls of the chapel, while St. Matthew and the Angel is placed in the middle of the two paintings as the altarpiece.
In the Cerasi Chapel, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter occupy the lateral walls. This Chapel is also dark, again requiring the observer to physically walk over to the painting in order to properly view them. It is also important to note that Caravaggio took into account that these paintings were to be located on the lateral walls. As a result, he painted them to be seen from an angle, not from straight ahead. He also created diagonals in these paintings toward the altar of the Chapel, drawing the viewers attention from his paintings to the altar.
THE MARTYRDOM OF ST. MATTHEW