The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

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The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Caravaggio, 1599-1600
By ELIZABETH ELLIS
The story of the painting is one from the Bible. Hirticus, a king, wanted to marry the niece of St. Matthew, Iphigenia. However, because she had been resurrected by St. Matthew and was an abbess of a convent, St. Matthew refused the marriage. Enraged by his refusal, Hirticus had him killed. Caravaggio was known for mixing religious devotion with the chaotic modern world, in which death, cheating, and murder happened daily.


Caravaggio's painting depicts the inside of a dark, vast church, where converts wait, undressed and prepared for their baptism. Despite the religious precedents for this painting, in which they focus on the ascension of St. Matthew as the center of the painting, Caravaggio chooses to place the assassin at the center of the painting, light falling on him, as his figure and the figure of St. Matthew form a triangle at the center of the painting. This is an odd irony; the light falls, godlike, on the killer, while St. Matthew's body seems almost ready to fall backwards into the abyss below him. As the assassin prepares the killing blow, the figures of the converted scatter and flee, while the only one to stay is the angel descending, ready to place the palm of the martyr into St. Matthew's outstretched hand.

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