The Calling of St. Matthew

7:00 AM

Michelangelo de Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600
By LIBBY ROHR

Michelangelo Merisi, now known to the world as Caravaggio, started his life as a nobody and ended it a murderer, overcome with disease and exhaustion, begging for a pardon from the Pope. However, the works created between the nobody and the dead fugitive are nothing short of miraculous. The Calling of St. Matthew and the other painting that accompanies it in the Contarelli Chapel became Caravaggio's tipping point. The church's Patron originally requested his first boss in the art world, Giuseppe Cesari, however, finding him overbooked, turned to the young Caravaggio for the commission instead. By the time he finished these incredible works, the entire art world of Rome had its eyes on Caravaggio. Even as a mere Art History student, it's obvious why.

It's characterized Baroque by the dramatic posing and theatrical composition, however, Caravaggio transcends that game. The Calling of St. Matthew exemplifies the most famous and unique facets of his work, the tenebrism, the modern dress, and, most of all, the depiction of real people carrying out the events of the Bible. Each person in this work lives, breathes, and moves before your eyes in unabashed realistic detail. Anyone who might look on this painting could see the events of Matthew's life in a way that may as well be in a small room down the street, not some magical far off land years and years ago. He brings religion to life.

It's a striking image. The beam of light spotlights the table of greedy tax collectors young and old, hunched over a table of money. Only the three on the right side have even noticed Jesus's presence; the other two still focus on the little metal pieces in front of them. But that beam of light slices through the shady room as directed by Jesus's Creation of Adam style finger at Matthew. That thin delicate halo is the only part of this work that couldn't truly be found in some crusty back room somewhere. It's mystical, but mystical within the bounds of reality which, for many, makes the image all the more powerful. The man in the middle looks at Jesus with a startled expression, pointing at himself as if to say "who me?" Or maybe he's pointing at one of the men to his side. There are many interpretations of this, but to me, his ambiguity seems intentional and serves to further his point. A sinner, a nondescript nobody, being called to God shows the world that important lives are not restricted to the people on top. Caravaggio argues quite convincingly with his painting that anybody can be called. The men around those tables may as well be you, me, a drunk passed out at a bar, or even the guy who cut you off in traffic. Caravaggio's focus in The Calling of St. Matthew is not on a blinding Jesus, glowing with the light or God and salvation, it is on the man, the everyday-Joe-type sinner experiencing a transformation. Jesus is merely a facilitator of God's will. It shows a world where we don't worship the man doing the blessing, we're worshiping the force and that force is streaming out to cover the layman. 

There's no doubt that Caravaggio had unparalleled talent and revolutionized religious painting, but the real question has to do with his own mental state. Is Caravaggio a religious man unable to control his vicious and lustful streaks, or is he a lover of anarchy taking advantage of the religious roots of painting to succeed with his gift? Are his brutally honest scenes in an effort to enhance the religious and force it into the lives of his viewers, or is it an artist's rebellion, throwing the barbarity of reality in the face of the religious? Could it be some combination of the two?

We'll likely never know the answers to these questions, but I would argue that the answers don't actually matter. Caravaggio can mean all of these things to different people, but so long as he's provoking something within his audience, he's doing his job as an artist. For me, I see people I know in The Calling of St. Matthew and it reminds me of the sermon on the mount.


"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
 
I know, says Caravaggio, and here they are, basking in God's light. And I must say, I find some part of that image incredibly comforting.

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