Caravaggio – The Calling of St Matthew – part 1

The Calling

Today we are going to understand why Caravaggio is considered a master thanks to the masterpiece “The Calling of St Matthew”!

Let’s start because there is a lot to say!

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Baroque Painting
ARTIST Caravaggio
NAME The Calling of St Matthew
LOCATION Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
YEAR 1599–1600
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 322 x 340cm (127 x 130in)
TYPE Oil on canvas

Hi Art lovers!

In this episode of the Baroque series we are going to admire “The Calling of St Matthew” (“Vocazione di San Matteo“) by one of the best painters ever: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio! This post is the first half and it will follow the second half for lenght reasons 🙂

What we have here is something unbelievable. I could continue with many adjectives to describe the importance and level of this Baroque painting, but I want that we start to read it, so you can understand better what I mean.

The oil on canvas was completed in 1599–1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it remains today. It hangs alongside two other paintings of Matthew by Caravaggio, “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” (painted around the same time as the Calling) and “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” (1602). This is not a trivial information to give you some more details, but soon we will see that it is an important detail that (from my point of view) brings to a common mistake.

The Scene

But let’s go in order: the scene depicts the moment when Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him. Matthew in fact was a tax collector and the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) says: “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.”

Simple and direct…what we have here it is Matthew sitting at a table with four other men and, on the right, Jesus, with another character (probably Saint Peter), “pointing at him”. I am going to explain soon why the quotation marks.

Easy…? Theories

Ok that sounds pretty easy, but which one is Matthew???

There is still a debate about it and it depends on the surprised gesture of the bearded man at the table. Most of the experts assume Saint Matthew to be the bearded man pointing at himself as if to ask “Me?” in response to Christ’s summons.

This theory is justified taking into consideration the other two works of series: “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” where the bearded man, who models as Saint Matthew, appears as well.

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - detail Matthew
The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - detail Matthew

Because of that, this is the theory commonly accepted and the experts identify Saint Matthew as the bearded man. But what if instead the bearded man is pointing at the young man at the end of the table, whose head is slumped, asking “Him?” in response to Christ’s summons? Well this is the other theory based on the idea that the painting depicts the moment immediately before a young Matthew raises his head to look at Christ.

I want that you keep in mind both theories. But let’s move on reading the painting because Caravaggio was a genius and for sure he wanted to keep the work of art deliberately ambiguous. However, there are many elements we can understand since everything in his paintings has a meaning.

The Light

Let’s start with the main element of the painting: the light.

Coming inside the scene, Christ brings the “true light” to the dark space of the sitting tax-collectors, but it is the light to rule the scene. We can divide the painting in two sections: a lower half with the characters and an upper part completely empty except for a window and the light. Without the light the scene would be completely dark.

The metaphor is easy and it is a common idea in the Catholic religion: Jesus, son of God, is the light for the men. The contrast between light and dark is one of the main elements that identity Caravaggio’s paintings and he is one of the best artists (or probably the best) to master these combinations in all his works. This contrast, called chiaroscuro, is actually a fusion that allows Caravaggio to create drama, volumes and drive messages/ideas.

If you follow the light (Jesus – Son of God) you can save yourself and that is why the light reaches the faces of all men sitting at the table. However, just few of them decide to look at it. God let you decide what to believe on…

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - detail Jesus
The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - detail Jesus

The Light Path

So let’s follow the light path. Jesus is the first figure on the right and it is amazing the realism of his face Caravaggio is able to create playing with the chiaroscuro effect! What apparently surprises is also the fact that Jesus eyes are in low light and just a part of his face is visible. Actually this is part of Caravaggio genius since this solution makes more difficult to understand who Jesus is really looking and we cannot clearly read his feelings since mouth and eyes are in the dark.

The Hand

Another element that seems obvious is Jesus’ hand… Before I quoted “pointing at him” because I disagree on this common opinion. Jesus in fact is not pointing… he is in the act of pointing… both his fingers and wrist are bent and Caravaggio caught the exact moment when he is indicating the right person at the table.

The hand completes the line from Jesus’ face and, if we look carefully, it seems almost floating in contrast with the dark wall on background. That hand in fact is a gesture of creation: creation of a new man. And it is not a coincidence it is a symmetric copy of Adam’s hand from the famous “The creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel’s.

Continuing to follow the light direction we can draw some straight lines and now we are going to find out the magic and genius of Caravaggio. Please interact with the tool down here to help you understand and visualize what I am saying. Drawing a line from Jesus’ eyes and following the top of his hand we can perfectly reach the bearded man… So it seems Jesus is pointing at him…

The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Jesus's neon line
The Calling of St Matthew - Caravaggio - Baroque Painting
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