|The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio. 1599-1600.|
This is one of my favorite pieces of art by the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is from the Baroque period as part of the reaction in the Catholic culture to the Protestant Reformation. The painting depicts the scene from the Gospels where Our Lord sees the future St. Matthew with his fellow tax collectors and commands him, "Come, follow me." It is located in a beautiful side chapel in the church of St. Louis of France in Rome, alongside two other Caravaggio paintings from the life of St. Matthew.
First, allow me tell you a little bit about the painter. Caravaggio was a rather controversial artist from Milan. He was born wealthy, but he was orphaned at the age of ten. Towards the end of the 1500s, he arrived in Rome as the typical starving artist; however, his painting The Calling of St. Matthew catapulted him into success. His style consisted of depicting the ignoble in art, making him a rather contentious figure. He had a violent temper, but he was also a follower of St. Philip Neri, a Catholic priest, a great preacher and a contemporary of his. St. Philip Neri had just founded his oratory, so it is possible that Caravaggio may have come to hear him preach.
Caravaggio introduced into his paintings the use of heavy contrast between light and dark to enhance the drama of the painting! While he was working, he would set up lanterns as spot-lights on his work to help exaggerate the shadows and the light in his paintings. This technique may be contrasted with the style of Michelangelo's use of light and shadows, which is not as intense. The use of light and shadow is a useful tool to help date pre-- and post-- Caravaggio artists. The style of Caravaggio is also in the same spirit of the Italian artist Giotto, who painted the beautiful frescos of the life of St. Francis for the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Giotto used modeling and gestures to help tell the story of the painting.
Now, to discuss the painting itself. If you looks closely, the light is not coming from the window -- in short, it is not from the natural world! The hand of Christ is modeled after the hand of Michelangelo's The Creation of Man, one of the most famous frescoes adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Which hand Caravaggio is imitating (God the Father's or Adam's) is debatable. St. Peter is in front of Christ, and is portrayed often in Baroque religious art because this art is proclaiming the primacy of Peter and Catholicism as the true faith.
Another intriguing element of the painting is the mode of dress of the two parties. Christ and St. Peter are clad in their traditional garb, while Matthew and his fellow tax collectors are wearing the garb of the day, thus relating the viewer to the scene in the painting. One tax collector is using his fingers to stack the coins, while another is adjusting his spectacles. Each has a different reaction to Christ. Matthew has heard and is pointing to himself as if to say, "Me, Lord?" The light is cast on his face, drawing the viewer's eye to him as the focal point. The two figures on the left are unaware of Christ's call. As for the two figures on the right: one is unsure and is ready to draw his sword. The other, looking askance, appears curious and casual as he leans on St. Matthew. One gets the impression that he may do whatever Matthew does. Caravaggio brings you into the scene, and forces us to ask the questions, "To what is Jesus calling me, and what is my response?"
I think part of the reason why this painting is so meaningful to me is because of the different reactions of the men in the scene. It reminds me of the line from the poem "Aurora Leigh" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861):
"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries..."
St. Matthew was not only willing to see in this scene, but he was also given the grace to see. The other tax collectors are partially or completely oblivious to the call of Christ. St. Matthew has seen and is about to take off his shoes. The beauty of God is all around us : in nature, the people we meet, beautiful artwork and music. It is up to us to awaken ourselves to His presence. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, The world will never suffer for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder!