Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio: Analysis

Instructor: Amy Martin
This text lesson analyzes the composition and meaning of Caravaggio's first large-scale oil painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), located in the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome.

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio (c. 1621), Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence.
Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio (c. 1621)

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.

The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy.
The Contarelli Chapel

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, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600). Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy.
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

Caravaggio's Composition

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.

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