Are you searching for the Love that surpasses all love?
Are you being called from loneliness, confusion, or isolation to fellowship, truth, and friendship?
Are you seeking the peace the world cannot give or take?
In this famous Caravaggio painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, Jesus Christ is calling Matthew out of the only life he has known to a life he can hardly imagine. Are you being called to new life in Jesus Christ?
Meet some of our members who have answered this call
The Courage to Follow
Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew
By Jim O’Neill
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew hangs on the wall of the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome. The painting is displayed next to two other Caravaggios that depict the life of the apostle and evangelist: Saint Matthew and the Angel and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
The Calling of Saint Matthew visually depicts the New Testament account in Chapter 9 of Matthew’s own Gospel. Christ enters a tax collector’s ofﬁce. He sees Matthew and speaks only two words to him: “Follow me.” Caravaggio presents this singular moment in Matthew’s life as one that is both personal and universal. The painting reveals a turning point in the life of one man and also in the history of all men.
Caravaggio’s St. Matthew paintings stunned the art world when they appeared in 1602. No one had painted images, especially sacred ones, with such frank realism and emotional immediacy before. The sharp division between light and dark, referred to as chiaroscuro, was a radical device in Caravaggio’s day, but it soon became a hallmark of the Baroque period. The style would be employed by painters who were Caravaggio’s contemporaries, known collectively as “the Caravaggisti,” as well as by future artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, deChirico, Ansel Adams, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese.
Caravaggio’s use of light does not draw our eyes upward to heaven the way Fra Angelico’s angels or Raphael’s Madonnas do. His light brings heaven down to earth. The viewer does not stare in awe at a miracle that takes place on a faraway cloud; he is now part of that miracle. Caravaggio’s ﬁgures, whether they are saints or the Virgin Mary or Christ himself, are as earthbound as the viewer. Their feet are worn and callused by the earth they tread. Their backs are strained. Their faces are lined. Life is a struggle, and it is in that world of persistent toil and rare reward that the divine becomes visible. Miracles occur where they are least anticipated: on a dusty road to Damascus, in a small roadside tavern in Emmaus, or at a tax collector’s desk in Capernaum.
For the most part, Caravaggio depicts a Matthew who is not yet on the move. The light on Matthew’s face reveals that he has just acknowledged the Lord’s call, though reluctantly, and that the light has somehow changed him. His future may be uncertain, but the roadhouse melee, the company of like-minded businessmen, and the pile of coins spread out before him are already losing their luster. They are quickly becoming a part of Matthew’s past.
The setting for The Calling of Saint Matthew is a tavern not unlike the many that Caravaggio frequented in his own neighborhood surrounding Rome’s Campo Marzio. The men seated on the left side of the table are dressed in sixteenth Century Roman attire. Christ and St. Peter enter from the right and stand in the
shadows. Barefoot and dressed in peasant garb, they are poor and humble journeymen who are traveling across time and space. Their trip is a long and tiresome one. Peter shifts his weight onto his walking stick, and both men use what little physical strength they have left to lift their arms and point to a man in their
midst. Christ’s hand is a copy of, an homage to, or even a joke at the expense of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s The Creation of Adam fresco that was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel almost a century before Caravaggio painted St. Matthew in the San Luigi Church.
The two groups of men are separated by a window whose mullions form a cross. The horizontal beam of the cross connects time and space while the vertical beam brings together heaven and earth. Caravaggio imbues a dark, grim, and soiled setting with a light that transforms those surroundings. What was once tarnished is now translucent, and what used to shine brightly is now fading away. Nothing, and no one, in that room will ever be the same again. Matthew is undoubtedly a new man even though he continues to coddle the coins with one hand while he points to himself with the other as if to say, “Who, me?” The hand that now points to his heart was stufﬁng a coin into the fold of his cap just a moment before. Matthew is caught by surprise, but he is also caught by something else. His eyes open wide, and his brows and lids, formerly weighted down by weariness, lift with hearty curiosity. Something new is shining in those once tired eyes.
The other men at the table may appear undaunted by the strange new light, but Caravaggio’s juxtaposition of luminosity and shadow reveals in subtle ways that it affects them too. The bond between Christ and Matthew is not the only connection being made at that table. The two boys, who have angelic faces but urchin-like eyes, are perplexed and startled by the visitors. Despite their youth, they are no strangers to these adult surroundings. One boy feels relaxed enough to rest his arm on the tax collector’s shoulder while the other boy has one hand ready to push up from the stool at the same time his other hand reaches for a sword. They are not the protected ones; they are the protectors, probably pages or minders, who serve as the front line of defense shielding the money and its counters from theft and harm. They are unsure of what to make of these two poorly dressed strangers who have entered their midst.
A man wearing a fur-collared coat leans over Matthew’s right shoulder in order to examine the transaction that is taking place on the table. The man’s furrowed brow and squinting gaze stand in contrast to Matthew’s raised forehead and wide-open eyes. Unlike Matthew, the man goes on with his business, paying no mind to the visitors, but he senses that something out of the ordinary is happening at the table. He adjusts his spectacles to get a better perspective. When he does, the light catches his hand and his face. His hardened visage begins to warm up.
Perhaps the most fascinating, and mysterious, character in the scene is the young man seated at the far left side of the table. He leans forward in a Savonarola chair hunched over the coins the way a hungry man curls himself around a bowl of stew. He is probably a taxpayer who is settling his account and taking back what little change the collectors have left him. He will place that change in the money sac he holds close to his heart. The light crosses over the lower part of his face and the top of his shoulders. The shadow on the back of his neck seems to expand as if the man were about to lift his head, but there is something in his downward gaze that indicates he might be hesitant. He appears unsure whether to look up or not. He seems to sense that if he raises his eyes toward the light, his life will never be the same again.
The young man, as well as everyone else who sits at the table with Matthew, is experiencing something eye-opening and life-changing. What they will do with that something depends on what happens next. The painting does not take us beyond that instant in time. We can only wonder what took place after Christ spoke those two seminal words, “Follow me.” Who stayed? Who looked up? Who followed?
Caravaggio has shown us a moment when grace makes a visit. What follows that encounter depends on the response to Christ’s invitation. We know what Matthew’s response was. As for the rest of us, we have a choice to make: we can remain at the table, or we can raise our eyes to the light, seize our moment, and watch our own lives change forever.
Copyright © 2015 Courage