in the calling of saint matthew caravaggio uses light to
Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602) Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.
For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).
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.
The painting depicts the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9): “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.” Caravaggio depicts Matthew the tax collector sitting at a table with four other men. Jesus Christ and Saint Peter have entered the room, and Jesus is pointing at Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table who are looking at Jesus Christ.
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.
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.
Doyle, Humanities 300 Lecture.
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.
In other works on this theme, Saint Matthew is depicted inside a building, with Christ outside (in accordance with the Biblical text) calling upon him through a window. Both before and after Caravaggio this subject was frequently used as a pretext for anecdotal genre paintings.
Caravaggio’s talent shone through in these works and cardinals, noblemen and religious authorities overcame the shocking newness of his paintings and were moved and enchanted by what they saw.