The Birth of an Artist's Career
The Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is renowned today for creating a moralizing, and at times controversial, body of work. In this text lesson, we will dissect the meaning behind The Calling of Saint Matthew, the life-size oil painting that launched Caravaggio's career and made him the most desired religious painter in Rome.
In 1599, Caravaggio received a commission to paint the lateral walls of the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesci, France's national church in Rome. The decoration of the Contarelli Chapel was funded by an endowment from the French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel ('Contarelli' in Italian) upon his death in 1585. Contarelli stipulated that his chapel should be adorned with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew, his namesake. The subject of Matthew's calling was chosen for the left wall of the chapel and Matthew's martyrdom was chosen for the chapel's right wall.
This was Caravaggio's first public project and if he failed, his fledgling career might never take off. He had never before painted on such a grand scale; his repertoire until this point had been limited to paintings for private devotion, scenes of everyday life, and allegories celebrating love and music. Thus, the artist needed to present The Calling of Saint Matthew in a memorable way.
The Calling of Saint Matthew
The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the moment from Matthew 9:9 when Jesus passes by Matthew, a tax collector, and says 'Follow me.' Matthew (also called Levi) did so and became one of Jesus' twelve disciples. When the religious authorities chastised Jesus for keeping company with tax collectors, he explained that he was there to save sinners, not the righteous. While the story might seem simple, it indicated that even those who were considered to be the worst of people could be saved and were welcome to follow Jesus.
Caravaggio's painting shows a group of tax collectors gathered around a table in a dimly lit, ordinary room. A dash of light sweeps the canvas from right to left and illuminates the scene, creating Caravaggio's signature lighting technique known as chiaroscuro (the contrast of light and shadow). Three of the five tax collectors are looking up in surprise as the sudden appearance of Jesus Christ and Saint Peter has broken up the monotony of daily life. Jesus' open mouth suggests that he is speaking the words 'follow me,' but who is he making this request of? The outstretched arms of both Christ and Peter lead our eye to an older bearded man, Matthew, who points to himself as if to say, 'Who, me?' in reaction to Jesus' invitation. The young man at the far left end of the table and the older man who stands over him might represent the opposite reaction that one should have toward Jesus: uninterested, unresponsive, and wrapped up in the importance of worldly affairs.
Art historians have noted that Jesus' outstretched index finger recalls the connection between Adam and God in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. This artistic reference not only demonstrates Caravaggio's familiarity with the master painters of his time, it also reminds viewers of theological idea that Jesus is the Second Adam. In other words, Jesus was the one who restored the relationship between God and Man after Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, which led to the fall of man. Thus, Jesus' outstretched finger can be seen as bridging the spiritual gap that exists between Matthew and Jesus. It also links the composition together by leading our eye from Jesus and Saint Peter to the tax collectors depicted at the other end of the canvas.
One might wonder why the tax collectors are shown in strange-looking, puffy clothes, and how anyone could ever relate to the people wearing them. The flashy clothes that Caravaggio shows the tax collectors wearing clash with the bare robes worn by Jesus and Saint Peter and are unique to the period. Contrary to most art of the time, Caravaggio also retained the unidealized features of the models who posed for this painting, so the tax collectors look like normal people that one could have passed on the street. To viewers, both of these artistic choices suggested that the meaning behind the story of Matthew's calling was still applicable to the current time period. People living in the late 16th century would have understood the painting's message as one of redemption, as long as they, like Matthew, responded to Jesus' call.
The Calling of Saint Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome was Caravaggio's first public commission. The painting depicts the biblical story of Jesus asking Matthew, a tax collector, to become one of his disciples. When it was unveiled in 1600, The Calling of Saint Matthew surprised the Roman public with its simplicity and life-size scale. Though Caravaggio took a risk by not idealizing the tax collectors and showing them in period clothes, this actually helped people to relate to the painting. Because of Caravaggio's talent for clear storytelling and his unique use of light and shadow in this painting, he became the most sought-after religious painter in Rome.
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