Beauty in Death: Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Jan de Beer, Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1535

Accounts vary as to how Matthew was martyred, or whether he was even martyred at all. Many sources claimed that he lived his days out in relative peace, going around to different lands—sources disagree on where he went—and proselytizing. However, several painters including Caravaggio and Jan de Beer above have painted a specific legend about Matthew that probably is not true. This legend tells that Matthew took up residence preaching in Ethiopia after the death of Christ. He preached there for several years, in good stead with the king. However, one day the king took a liking to his niece. Matthew rather harshly told him how disgusting such love was. The king, not used to being rebuffed, did not take well to Matthew’s counsel. The king ordered him executed by soldiers while Matthew delivered mass.

Jan de Beer here paints Matthew stretched out vulnerably face down on the ground. His face looks tired and haggard. He carries a bible in his hand. He crawls towards his assailant. He seems completely surprised by the situation. Jan de Beer, a Dutch painter, does his best with his limited knowledge of what Ethiopia might look like. In Jan’s painting, the king himself looks on coldly as his goon takes care of Matthew. The tone of this painting differs from almost every other work I will talk about. In most paintings, the saint looks heavenward in an expression of some sort of hope. However, in this work Matthew has no time to think. I think this represents an interesting step towards a realistic depiction of martyrdom by de Beer. Most painters who painted martyrdoms tried to include some sort of message of hope or at least a moral in their painting. De Beer, on the other hand, appears simply to have painted a man dying. Perhaps this is because he was part of the Northern Renaissance and placed less emphasis on the divine. No matter the reason, de Beer’s otherwise undistinguished painting represents a significant departure from traditional images of martyrdom.

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