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The Calling of Saint Matthew

Artist: Michelangelo Caravaggio
Created: 1599-1600
Dimensions (cm): 340.0 x 322.0
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

The Calling of Saint Matthew

Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel of the Contarelli Chapel had specified in his will, (over 10 years before the creation of ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’) that the chapel was to be decorated in themes based on his namesake, Saint Matthew. Owing to the cardinal’s wish, Michelangelo Caravaggio obtained his first major church commission and created ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ in 1599-1600. This painting, and its companions “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” and the altarpiece “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”, were the beginning of a tremendously successful career for Caravaggio.

‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ depicts a story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) where Jesus appeared in a custom house, urging Matthew to follow him so as to obtain eternal life, an offer to which his disciple subscribed.  The scene is at once unassuming and yet theatrical; four tax men sit at a table counting the day’s proceeds when Christ, accompanied by Saint Peter, makes a dramatic and surprising appearance.

The painting is creatively fashioned into two fragments: the figures of Christ and Saint Peter standing at the right to form a vertical profile, while the group of seated men on the left create a horizontal block. The tax men are dressed in contemporary clothing while Christ and Saint Peter wear long, ancient robes, a feature that reinforces the contrast between their world and the other-worldly existence. Christ’s outstretched hand over a small vacant area also contributes to this division.

Which Figure is Saint Matthew?

Over the years, there has been much debate as to which figure represents Saint Matthew. Many agree that the bearded man at the table who is pointing to himself signifies the Saint because this particular figure appears in all three paintings in the series.

Another more recent theory proposes that the bearded man is pointing not to himself but to the slumped, younger figure as if to say “Who, him?” The painting would then be capturing a moment just before the young man raises his head to see Christ and become inspired by his words.

The anonymity of Saint Matthew is a puzzling aspect of the scene, and a number of experts feel that the figures were intentionally meant to be ambiguous.

About the Artist

Michelangelo Merisi (or Amerighi) Caravaggio was trained as a painter in Milan under Titian trained Simone Peterzano. When Caravaggio moved to Rome, his naturalistic approach to art and innovative stylistic tenebrism rendered him a very popular artist. However, he did not handle success well. He was involved in countless arguments and physical altercations that entailed several confrontations with the law, including time spent in jail.

In 1606, after killing a young man during one of his notorious fights, the Pope issued a death warrant against Michelangelo Caravaggio and the troubled artist fled Rome. In 1610, he was noted to return to Rome to receive a papal pardon, but reportedly died from a bout of fever en route.

‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ remains at the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, for which it was originally created.


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