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The Calling of St. Matthew, an oil painting on canvas, was painted around 1599-1600 and is located in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, Italy. The Calling of Saint Matthew is huge--ten and a half feet tall by eleven feet wide. The painting was created for this space and has been on display for over 410 years.
Known for having murdered a man in a street fight, Caravaggio's paintings, like the painter himself, bring drama to life. Caravaggio's works, including The Calling of Saint Matthew, display a virtuoso emotional and physical realism never before seen in painting.
Caravaggio struggled to find patrons, but in 1595 his work was brought to the attention of an avid art collector, Cardinal del Monte. He bought Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps and went on to buy a number of Caravaggio’s other works, including The Fortune Teller. He lodged him in his household at the Palazzo Madama, where Caravaggio also painted Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and the Ecstasy of Saint Francis. Cardinal del Monte helped Caravaggio secure what would be the most important commission of his life.
The series includes two other paintings: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and the Inspiration of Saint Matthew. Placed alongside one another they form a brief, but the complete biography of the saint. The paintings, Caravaggio’s first public commission, are considered fundamentally important to launching his career.
Without the skies parting or angels singing, the Saint Matthew figure in The Calling of Saint Matthew the has the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment, the light falling from the right of the painting and Christ's hand tell the story: Matthew has been summoned. Matthew was well known for being a tax collector, a most despised profession, reviled by Jesus himself and this painting served as a reminder to the viewer that Christ came "Not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew himself seems surprised to be summoned.
The Calling of Saint Matthew is dark yet bold. With this series, Caravaggio's works become larger, more somber in coloring and seriously ecclesiastical, as opposed to his earlier The Cardsharps or Gypsy Fortune Teller, which are brighter, in both palette and tone.
The characters in The Calling of Saint Matthew wear a fancy dress from Caravaggio’s day. He did not paint the characters as idealized figures of the Renaissance; he has set them in a contemporary-for-the-time place, giving the characters a vivid immediacy.
Two figures balance out the composition on the right, a heavier looking man, with short hair: this is Saint Peter. Half-obscured, the younger more delicate figure is Christ. He is different from the other characters, his gestures more delicate and otherworldly. He is the most hidden and is identifiable by a subtle halo.
On the right, in the center, is one of Caravaggio’s typical figures, youth, similar to the men in The Musicians and The Lute Player—it is said the artist always paints himself, and here it may be true. In the group on the left, Matthew's pointing finger seems somewhat ambiguous--is Matthew pointing to himself or the young man counting coins next to him? The moment is purposefully ambiguous, as only real life can be.
The viewer is witnessing a moment of conversion, an awakening, a typical subject in the baroque art. The divine enters everyday life, as in Amigoni’s The Vision of Saint Theresa. This work takes the Renaissance one step further, realistic looking people, set in a realistic environment. Caravaggio uses light and shadow to dramatic effect, pushing the shadows to black and bathing the subjects in what he called, “the light of God.” The Calling of Saint Matthew is done in what will become classic Caravaggio style--using black, brown and other earth tones to depict subjects during a moment of profound internal struggle. With this Saint Matthew series, his first large-scale commission, he establishes himself as an artist with a singular style that will become its school. He never lacked patronage again.
Peter-Paul Rubens, Caravaggio’s contemporary and one of the great masters himself, advised his friends to buy the street brawler's works.