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Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew is an oil painting on canvas, painted around 1599-1600 and is located in the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome, Italy.
The Calling of Saint Matthew is huge--ten and 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 in oil, including The Calling of Saint Matthew, display a virtuoso emotional and physical realism, never before seen in painting.
Caravaggio apprenticed as a painter in Milan with Simone Peterzano, who had in trained with Titian earlier. In his early twenties Caravaggio moved to Rome where the Roman Catholic Church was struggling with the counter-reformation. During the late 1600s and early 1700s the Church built many huge new cathedrals, all of which needed to be filled with art. Caravaggio struggled through his early twenties to find patrons and supporters of his work, but 1595 an art dealer brought Caravaggio’s work to the attention of Cardinal del Monte. An avid art collector, he bought Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps and went on to buy a number of Caravaggio’s other works, including The Fortune Teller. He gave him lodging in his household at the Palazzo Madama, where Caravaggio set up the studio in which he painted Rest on the Flight into Egypt, and the Ecstasy of Saint Francis.
The Calling of St. Matthew is located in the Contarelli Chapel, part of the San Luigi dei Francesi, the French Church in Rome. In the chapel are two other paintings about Matthew also by Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and the Inspiration of Saint Matthew. Placed alongside one another they form a brief, but complete biography of the saint. These three paintings introduced Caravaggio’s work, along with his revolutionary techniques, to the papal court and gained him a much wider audience than just Cardinal del Monte and his circle. The paintings were a departure from the Mannerist style that was currently the norm for ecclesiastical paintings, and caused a sensation. But many saw the paintings as artistically visionary. The paintings, Caravaggio’s first public commission, are considered fundamentally important to his career and what was to be considered a breakthrough in style.
The chapel where they are displayed is named for Mathieu Cointrel, whose name for the chapel is Italianized to Contarelli—who was made cardinal in 1583. Various artists were commissioned to do work for the chapel, but little was ever accomplished and the chapel was unattended for years. In 1594 and again in 1596, the clergy to whom the chapel had been entrusted wrote to the church to complain that the chapel had been boarded up for over ten years. The artist Giuseppe Cesari had been commissioned to create altar pieces and other works for the chapel, but after finishing the frescos on the chapel’s ceiling, he announced he had overextended himself with commissions and moved on to other projects. When Cesari relinquished the commission, Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal del Monte recommended the 28 year-old for the job. On July 23, 1599, Caravaggio signed a contract for two paintings for four hundred scudi, with the contract stating work would be complete within one year. On July 4th, 1600 he was given the final payment. The third painting came later.
After the successful reception of these pieces, Caravaggio never lacked for patrons or commissions; however he didn’t handle success well. An early publication about him dating from 1604 describes his lifestyle: “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” Records show he threw a ceramic bowl at a waiter for not knowing how artichokes should be prepared.
In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl, was sentenced to death, and fled Rome. He brawled his way through Malta and Naples, and died at the age 38 falling ill as he traveled back to Rome to receive a pardon for his murder. His life, like his paintings, are a display of emotional tension.
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 shows us everything we need to know: 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 asked for by halo'd one.
Within a theatrically lit world, Caravaggio’s paintings depict a heightened, raw reality never seen before. Horticulturists could identify diseases on the leaves of his fruit; Carmelite nuns were scandalized by his characters' bare legs. The colors in The Calling of Saint Matthew are dark yet bold, as are the contrasting textures of velvet, feather and wood. This painting is from his Roman period, when his works become larger, more somber in coloring and seriously ecclesiastical, as opposed to his earlier works The Cardsharps or Gypsy Fortune Teller, which are brighter, in both palette and tone.
Caravaggio’s painting depicts a story from the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, “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.”
The characters in The Calling of Saint Matthew wear 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. It’s as if in a moment of coming into a bit of money, after deciding to share it with family and friends, instead you deposit all the money into your own bank account. As you are making the deposit, Christ walks in and says, “You.” The situation is out of context and shocking--and by setting the drama up like this, the saint seen in a secular situation, Caravaggio has done something wonderful.
Although a tax collector, Matthew followed Christ and became one of his disciples. The painting contains quite a few characters, and it takes some work to figure out who is who. There are two figures on the right, a heavier rougher looking man, with short hair: this is Saint Peter. On the left, 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, a 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. Matthew points, his expression saying, “Me, you can’t mean me. You must mean him.” The painting suspends the animation, but the viewer sees all the motion take place.
The viewer is witnessing a moment of conversion, an awakening, a typical subject in baroque art. The divine enters everyday life, as in Amigoni’s The Vision of Saint Theresa and so many other baroque paintings. This work takes the Renaissance one step further, realistic looking people, set in a realistic, quotidian environment, without angels. The very juxtaposition causes a heightened sense of spirituality.
Not only is Matthew a tax collector, a much more sketchy job then than it would be today, he’s sitting in what looks like a tavern. Caravaggio isn’t showing a Christ in Heaven, or an elevated Christ surrounded by clouds and a choir of angels. Matthew and four other men are seated at a table counting money, and all are armed. In spite of everyone clothed in fancy dress, it wouldn’t be surprising to see these characters burst into a swashbuckling sword fight over the cash. Caravaggio has set this glorious moment of enlightenment in the back room of a bar.
The painting is divided into two parts: the figures on the left form a horizontal rectangle, the figures on the right a vertical block. The figures on the left do not even notice Christ’s arrival—symbolizing those who reject Christ’s offer of redemption. The figures on the right are in shadow, the figures on the left are bathed in a glow from an unidentifiable light source. The light is not coming from the window above, but rather from the direction of, or maybe even Christ himself.
In previous paintings Caravaggio had struggled to depict multiple characters on the canvas. In paintings like the early version of Supper at Emmaus the expressions of the characters are painted in a masterful way, but the figures seem collaged onto one another, and don’t relate to one another in space. Caravaggio insisted on painting from life, without making sketches, and usually painted one figure at a time from a model, which didn’t allow him to plan how figures would affect each other in a painting. With The Calling of Saint Matthew the artist has solved his problem and depicts the characters of the work in a shallow space, but positioned as if in real space.
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.” He didn’t invent chiaroscuro, but it is said, Caravaggio “put the oscuro (the shadows) into chiaroscuro.” He darkened the shadows and blinded the subjects with light. This intense contrast between light and dark is one of his ongoing motifs and influenced many other artists, including Rubens . Although famous during his lifetime, Caravaggio had been forgotten about until the 20th century. In the 1920’s art critic Roberto Longhi brought Caravaggio back from obscurity, and placed him with other European masters: “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different.” Bernard Berenson, an American art historian who specialized in the Renaissance said of Caravaggio, “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.”
In fact, Caravaggio has borrowed from the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo’s hand of Adam, and in a role reversal has made it the hand of God. Adam was responsible for the fall of man, and Christ is the redemption. In this moment, Christ is redeeming Matthew. As Adam was created by God, Matthew here is recreated. The two groups of figures in the painting are separated by a wide space, bridging the space, are the light and Christ’s hand, reaching out. This beautiful hand is directly under the cross of the smeary window, the same hand that will soon be nailed to a cross when Christ will, according to Christian teachings, redeem all of humankind—just as he is now redeeming Matthew. The power of his gesture is made even more compelling by its casualness. Caravaggio brings the spiritual to us, rather than creating the far distance viewers from the high Renaissance were used to. In The Calling of Saint Matthew, we stand in the room, with life size figures, and can practically breathe the air of this life-changing moment.
All three of his paintings in the chapel use an unidentified light source from high in the picture, with no reflections, as though they are in a dark room. The light areas are very bright, and the dark areas are very dark. This gives a three-dimensional quality to the painting, adding to the sense of the viewer being in the same room as the action.
Italian Baroque art, in addition to its “godly” light source, is also characterized by rich and dark colors. The Calling of Saint Matthew is done in what will become classic Caravaggio style--using black, brown and other earth tones to depict sensual subjects during a moment of profound internal struggle—this painting was done by the artist as he was developing what would become his definitive approach. From here Caravaggio will move on from painting genre scenes for Cardinal del Monte and his friends. With this Saint Matthew series, his first large scale commission, he establishes himself as an artist with a singular style that will become its own school.
The reaction to his revolutionary technique was mixed. The powerful realism was sometimes found to be unsuitable and even shocking to some patrons. Other clients—and most of his clients from this time on were churches and patrons requesting religious art—were at first taken aback by the work, but then enchanted, and came back for more. His talent--for depicting emotional directness on a canvas of extreme light and dark with an unflinching eye--defined 17th century art in Italy.
Only around 80 paintings by Caravaggio have survived. Lost works are occasionally discovered. Judith Beheading Holofernes was found in the rafters of a house in Toulouse, France in 2014. A duplicate Caravaggio himself had made of The Cardsharps was discovered in 2015. The Cardsharps duplicate had been held in a private collection and thought to be a copy by a less known painter. It was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in 2015 for $62,000. Later the painting was revealed to be the work of the master himself and is valued at $10 million.
In 2015 Pope Francis encouraged people to view this artwork, pointing out that the painting is about how God gives second chances. “If you have time, go see the picture that Caravaggio painted of this scene,” he said, “the important thing is that you let yourself be loved by Him.”
The Calling of Saint Matthew served as a turning point for Caravaggio and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable as religious art in Rome in the last years of the 16th century. After this painting and its companion pieces for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome were installed, Caravaggio never lacked patronage. Peter-Paul Rubens, Caravaggio’s contemporary and one of the great masters himself, advised his friends to buy the street brawler's works.
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