The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. The most Unusual Painting of the Master

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew
Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. 1599-1600. Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

The Calling of St. Matthew is one of Caravaggio’s most unusual paintings. It made a sensation among contemporaries of the master.

Even now, it seems extraordinary. Christ is not at the center. On the contrary – in the very corner of the picture. In the shadow. And almost completely hidden by another figure!

But we still see him immediately. Thanks to his beautiful and noble gesture “You! Follow me!”

And who among the seated is Matthew?

It seems obvious. One that reveals himself to “Who? Me? Should I follow you?”

Not. It’s not him.

Although most art historians believe that this is Matthew.

I stick to a different version. It is shared by a much smaller number of specialists. But still it is closer to me.

Who is Matthew in the picture?

According to this less popular version, I can “read” the picture like this.

The taxpayer is sitting facing us. With beard. In a black beret with an expensive brooch. He is 35-38 years old. With one hand he puts the coins in the middle of the table.

Next to him is a boy of 14-15 years old. Well dressed too. His son or student. And the old man. Apparently an accountant taken with him.

Nobles themselves were unlikely to do such things. Most likely, his manager and assistants came to pay taxes. For travel on the bridge. For using paved roads. You never know what else.

Matthew is a city tax collector. With one hand, he counts the coins. Another holds the wallet tightly.

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. Fragment.
Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. Fragment. 1599-1600. Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. Wga.hu.

He is young. He is 27-28 years old. But this is not surprising. After all, the profession was inherited from his father.

He took his bodyguard to a meeting with a taxpayer.

This is a young man. Cleverly owning a sword. Arriving at the tavern, he turned the bench across. And brazenly sat on it opposite the sleek youth.

He is impudent, pugnacious. His humpbacked nose and small eyes fit his sword. His image leads to a slight fright of intractable debtors.

Suddenly, Christ and the Apostle Peter enter the tavern. A ray of light “cuts” the space. It is as if a ray of salvation has broken into the dark world of sins and vices.

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. Fragment. 1599-1600.

The tax collector’s bodyguard instinctively leaned forward. His hand reaches for the sword. Not surprising. In such a hot place anyone can be met, including thugs, eager for easy prey.

The youth, on the contrary, recoiled back, leaning on his father or teacher. He is not used to everyday fights.

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. Fragment. 1599-1600.

Matthew did not have time to raise his eyes. He is immersed in counting money. He still belongs to this world of sin and vice.

But Christ is already calling him. We know that in a second he will raise his eyes. And he will follow the teacher.

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. Fragment.

Another fact speaks in favor of the fact that the young man at the head of the table is St. Matthew.

For the same church, Caravaggio painted another artwork, “St. Matthew and the Angel.”

Caravaggio. Saint Matthew and the Angel. 1600 (Copy).
Caravaggio. Saint Matthew and the Angel. 1600 (Copy). The original was lost during the Second World War.

Judging by this picture, Caravaggio portrayed that young man in old age. The same pose and look. The same big head and stocky figure.

A man with a beard does not at all look like old Matthew.

Caravaggio. St. Matthew

By the way, the painting “St. Matthew and the Angel” is suffering.

It was not accepted by customers. The priests of the church were outraged by the sight of the saint. How is it possible? Some tramp with dirty heels. Hunched over a book! And where is the spirituality of the image? Where is the holiness?

Art Quiz

Caravaggio had to make concessions and write another St. Matthew. It already has no resemblance to a young man. Apparently, his appearance as a whole did not suit customers.

Caravaggio. Saint Matthew and the Angel.
Caravaggio. Saint Matthew and the Angel. 1600. Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s return to The Calling St. Matthew.

Why did Caravaggio “hide” Christ?

Yes, the picture is unusual. Caravaggio was able to masterfully show the clash of the ordinary, sinful with a miracle and hope of salvation.

Let us return to the figure of Christ.

After all, you still want to answer the question. Why did Caravaggio complicate his task? And placed Christ behind the figure of St. Peter?

This is done by the artist intentionally. See how St. Peter repeats the gesture of his teacher. He is not so noble. Rather … awkward.

Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew. 1599-1600.

Also in life. The apostles, and then their followers, will become preachers of Christian doctrine on earth. He left. But they stayed to carry the word of God to people.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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