The Calling of Saint Matthew

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600

Note: We mortals are not worthy to comment on this painting or its creator.

Sir Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio tore through restrictions in both society and painting. He killed over girls, pulled swords and daggers on people in the street, and vandalized his own apartment in a fit of rage. Caravaggio’s mouth got him in more trouble than did his actions, and when his life of debauchery got him exiled, he began an adventure that took him all over Italy, led him to become a knight in Malta, and set him up to blow everyone away upon his return.

The Baroque artist had indisputable natural talent. He did not sketch before painting, which only makes his works more impressive, and he rejected the classical idea that Biblical personages must be depicted as celestial beings in Utopian scenes. Caravaggio shared a covenant of honesty with his public, so he did not hesitate to show the morbid, painful, and real aspects of life. He brought all subjects down to the same base level, because saints were humans, just like the peasants of 1600, on the same Earth as Caravaggio.

The Fabbrica of St. Peter’s commissioned The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), coupled with The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, for the Contarelli Chapel. The first publicly displayed works of Caravaggio, these paintings highlight his artistic strengths of light and dark, weight, and earthliness. The Calling of Saint Matthew shows a conversion in austerity. Matthew, the apostle who wrote the first Gospel, was a tax collector obsessed with the material until called upon by Christ. Matthew counts money in a common, dirty tavern until the light of God comes down to bring him out of his materialistic darkness. In this representation, the partially-hidden Christ appears in the background instead of acting as the focus of the painting.

The aesthetic of The Calling of Saint Matthew comes from the vertical/horizontal balance of the painting's subjects. Contrast in body language and color also draws in observers to explore the variety of the work. The staging allows the scene to feel intimate and natural but still open its audience. Caravaggio breaks down the fourth wall in many of his paintings, and his use of heaviness and facial expression allows the masses to relate to Saint Matthew’s miracle, whether they first see this painting in 1600 or 2015.

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