The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

WHEN? Painted between 1599 and 1600

TECHINQUE: Oil on Canvas

WHERE: The painting is in Rome, in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Before Caravaggio starts painting the Calling of St. Matthew he reads the request by Cardinal Contarelli:

San Matteo dentro un magazeno, o ver salone, a uso di gabella con diverse robbe che convengono a tal officio con un banco come usano i gabellieri con libri, et danari in atto di haver riscosso qualche somma o, come meglio parerà, dal qual banco San Matteo vestito secondo che parerà convenirsi a quell’arte si levi con desiderio per venire a Nostro Signore che passando lungo la strada con i suoi discepoli lo chiama all’apostolato; et nell’atto di San Matteo si ha da dimoatrare l’artificio del pittore come anco del resto”

(Saint Matthew in a store, or a hall, used as tax office with many different things that relate to it with a table used by the tax officers with books and coins, and they have just received  some money or something thatseems like it and Saint Matthew, dressed as the artist will figure out, stands out with the desire to reach Our Lord that walked by to call him to join the Apostles. And in St. Matthew’s action  the painter has to demonstrate his skills and tricks”.

Caravaggio follows the directions with some freedom and plenty of ambiguity. In the painting Jesus meets Matthew not in a magazeno nor in a salone. It is hard to tell what kind of room it is. The ray of light comes in straight from outside, but not from the window. Behind this there should be a closed room or maybe it is night time.

Jesus is walking out of the painting and he is turning to indicate Matthew. You can clearly tell from his feet. The gospel says Jesus saw and walked by Matthew after he came out of a house where he cured a ill person. Cardinal Contarelli instead had requested  them to be inside a hall. Caravaggio tries a compromise. The location is something between a pawn shop and a guard post.

Jesus gesture is taken from Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Jesus is the new Adam. The coin on one man’s black hat shows he is a high tax officer. A young man seems he is paying his tribute. Matthew hands are one on his heart one on the money. Other scholars think he is not indicating his heart but the young guy, the real Matthew. However the shadow on the hand suggests it is directed toward his own breast.

Peter shows his back next to Jesus. The presence of Peter in the scene is Caravaggio’s invention and a homage to the church.the man with glasses symbolizes moral blindness and he is not aware of Jesus presence.