Caravaggio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, offers an alternative portrayal of the legendary Saint Matthew through the use of paradox. Through the use of color and image, Saint Matthew is transformed from the spiritual entity he is most often thought of as being, into an actual human being who merely experienced a life changing epiphany.The Calling of Saint Matthew is estimated to have been painted between 1599 and 1600, at the very beginning of the Baroque period and in the last decade of Caravaggio’s life. (Encarta). The painting was one of three to be included in his painting of the Contarelli Chapel in Rome (Encarta).
One of the most stirring aspects of The Calling of Saint Matthew is the use of color. The painting employs a number of somber hues, predominantly blacks and grays, to take away any spirituality Saint Matthew might be confused with. There is no real light, merely the faintness of lamplight, which makes the painting appear to be that much more human. Janis C.
Bell’s article “Some Seventeen-Century Appraisals of Caravaggio’s Coloring” refers to Caravaggio’s use of color as being one of the most important characteristics of the painter’s style. It is through Caravaggio and his insistence on the use of light and dark, that he encourages the use of chiaroscuro to be accepted by the art community. What’s more, Bell explains that the use of chiaroscuro also allows for the painting to develop more of a truthfulness than it would have if more colors and lighting were used.It is that idea of truthfulness that makes the painting so stirring.
Matthew sits in darkness with his peers, counting money. It is no accident that he is covered by the shadows. He is, at first sight, a sinner, incapable of becoming the famed Saint Matthew. But there is also the idea that the darkness, the truthfulness of the shadows, can bring about change. Matthew has the potential to become something else; because the colors around him are true to the environment, he is true to himself.
When Christ appears, he is quick to embrace his spirituality.Bell also explains that many people stated that Caravaggio had a tendency of painting so that his works appeared to be predominantly black His use of chiaroscuro allowed for the majority of the portrait to be swathed in darkness, while minimal light was brought in from only one corner, in such a way that at first glance, the light would be insignificant but on further study, would make the viewer realize the personal transcendence occurring in the piece. It can then be asked if the painting would be more effective if there had been more use of bright colors or if the decision to have the painting be predominantly black made the painting much stronger. Once again, it is the idea of truth which becomes predominant when thinking of the effect that the use of black had in the painting. Bright colors have a tendency of creating an awestruck effect for viewers. Those studying the painting are then forced to look beyond the black and white to see what the painting is truly about, instead of becoming distracted by color usage. The black and white also helps to create more of a sense of emotion in the painting. The use of chiaroscuro in the painting forces the shadows falling upon Saint Matthew’s face and obscuring other faces around him to become more representative of who the individual characters are.
It is that use of black and white which also makes the painting becomes somewhat more mystical in quality. Bell states that by using so much darkness and so little light in the work, a more natural state was given to the picture, while at the same time, causing the picture to appear slightly unnatural. Everything is exaggerated; thus, in the Calling, Matthew’s earlier sinfulness is drawn attention to by the dark surrounding the table and the minimal light shining upon the men, while his later spirituality is illuminated simultaneously by the source of the light and Christ’s presence within it.That manipulation of contrast is one of the most important characteristics of the work.
Without such dark colors and minimal lighting, the painting would be unable to maintain the themes the use of chiaroscuro allows. Not only does the dark and light show the balance between humanity and immortality, but also shows the balance between good and evil and reality and possibility. It is paradox and balance: Matthew’s company is tax collectors; such a spiritless place is where Christ chooses to call Matthew to him.
Matthew is surrounded by money when he suddenly feels compelled to embrace his spirituality.It is the basic usage of light and dark in Caravaggio’s painting that makes the Saint Matthew’s calling more interesting, as well as slightly surprising. Even when Matthew first looks towards Christ, he is covered in shadows. He is an unlikely candidate to write the Bible because he is shown to be the opposite of everything a spiritual person should be. But the use of the shadows and light still point to what Matthew can become. The darkness is the reality of his life; the shadow and light show that he can eventually change his reality and become more.
Bell goes on to state that critics also complained of the truthfulness of Caravaggio’s images. Critics felt that the individuals immortalized on canvas were too flawed, too human. It is that quality that makes The Calling of Saint Matthew so real.
Matthew’s image is not deluded by the romantic image of saints. He is not shown with a halo around his head but instead, with money in his hand. He becomes less of a representative of the Lord and more of a representative of man. He is a human saint and because of that, he is chosen to write the Bible so that it is no longer merely a divine book, but a book of important messages that are accessible to all of humanity.In a sense, it is that human quality that makes the religious message behind the painting more obvious. Religion is no longer for those who have always been on the path of righteousness, but is equally for those who have been in the proverbial darkness. It is only because Matthew is able to look through the darkness and see the truth of his surroundings that he leaves the table and his peers to follow Jesus. What’s more, it is no accident that the only light in the room falls upon Jesus as he walks by Matthew.
The light has a spiritual air to it which is drawn to the figure of Christ. Matthew looks towards the light and is drawn towards having a more spiritual life.Even more interesting is the portrayal of Matthew in the painting. He is shown to be a shrewd man; obviously, he is more concerned about money than his immortal soul. But there is a sense of intelligence in his face as well; it is obvious that he must have some sort of thought base to be sitting at a table counting money.That idea is explored in Troy Thomas’s article “Expressive Aspects of Caravaggio’s First Inspiration of Saint Matthew “, which explains that the Matthew depicted in the Calling of Matthew is shown to be a more free-willed person than the Matthew who is eventually shown in the Inspiration of Saint Matthew. It is by comparing the images in the two paintings that the paradox is shown at its strongest. Thomas states that:The change in Matthew’s appearance from the Calling is striking;in the Inspiration he is now a crude individual, helplessly inept andalmost comic with his large, round head, thick limbs, and intenseexpression.
Caravaggio’s Matthew is not merely ignorant, however,for at the same time that the angel guides his hand, in an instant ofmiraculous insight he reads and understands the meaning of the wordsin front of him. Caravaggio compresses two slightly different momentsin one image: the angel helps the peasant Matthew to write; and Matthewthe Evangelist reads and comprehends the holy text. His earthly ignorancehas prepared him to receive divine knowledge” (6).The paradox is even seen in the Inspiration. Matthew is both ignorant and learned; both peasant and scholar. In a sense, as soon as Matthew follows the Lord, he loses his former life and becomes a vessel through which God can spread His message to mankind. He does not need to have the same shrewdness the former Matthew had; instead, he merely needs to listen to the angels and follow their words. By looking at that paradox, the paradox of the former Saint Matthew is once again explored.
Matthew is both a sinner and a repenter. He is both a man and a saint. He is drawn to his fellow sinners while being attracted to Christ.The Matthew in The Calling of Saint Matthew has that peasant air, but he is also shown to be slightly wiser. He tends to his finances and goes after Christ because of his own free-will.
He appears to be more intelligent; if anything, his level of consciousness depicted in the picture contrasts sharply with later paintings as he eventually loses himself to the control of angelic forces. His eyes are shown to be kind and wide. What’s more, the men he is surrounded by do not have the clothing of peasants. He is shown to be a man; he is able to look around him and know what is happening. He is able to converse. He is able to think logically. He is able to count his money. He is amazed by Jesus’ appearance.
But he is also in full command of everything he does. He does not need anyone to guide him, unlike later versions of Matthew.And thus, the paradox that is Saint Matthew is explored. In Calling, Matthew is a tax collector, a man of means. In Inspiration, he has changed into an infantile person, reduced to poverty, and incapable of anything without the help of the angels.
It is interesting that the original, human version of Matthew appears to be more knowledgeable of the world, than the divinely inspired Matthew.Angela Hass’s article “Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew Reconsidered” explains that the entire scene still manages to adhere to Saint Matthew’s early life. The article explains that he was a tax collector and that just as he is about to draw a coin, he is distracted by Christ. In that moment, he becomes the actual image of the saint. He is no longer a sinner, taking money from the poor to pay the government, but is a man who had been led astray for a greater part of his life and had finally realized the error in his ways.
It is then fitting, that thinking in terms of Matthew becoming the image of Saint Matthew at that moment, that the light is as it has been done. The light filters towards him, leading him to his transcendence. Once again, there is an image of paradox. He is a human man, a sinner, but he is also a man capable of amazing spirituality.
He is two entities in one body, both which contrast sharply from each other, and the use of black and white is paralleled in terms of contrast.That paradoxical image is also explored by Hass.The tax-payer in the Calling has a pale and narrow face, lacking theprominent bone structure Caravaggio usually lends his saints, butsurrounded by fine fair hair. The eyes are large and soft, while the nosedescends long and bony from an unusually broad bridge between the eyes.The narrow nostril is flatly modeled, without any definition, while theblond moustache hides a pair of full red lips.
Finally the quick downwardslope of the dwindling eyebrows betrays the weakness of a man who may berefined and may be sensitive, but who – in contrast to the tax-collection -seems incapable of Matthew-Levi’s alleged ‘panting greed for filthy lucre’ (6).There is that paradox between human Matthew and the spiritual Matthew throughout the description. The idea of Matthew being both refined and sensitive is interesting; generally, those who are refined are thought to be slightly cold emotionally, and for Matthew to go against that generalization and be thought of as emotionally warm is interesting. He also has sharp features such as with his nose and forehead, but the warmth of his eyes and lips manages to go against the coldness that would be associated with a broad forehead and nose. Even more interesting is the image of Matthew being blond. In a sense, he is a slightly handsome man.
When the Inspiration is looked upon, the paradox between the beautiful and the grotesque is seen.Irving Lavin’s article “Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio’s Two Saint Matthews” explores the idea of the later version of Saint Matthew appearing to be so uneducated while simultaneously being drawn in the likeness of one of the greatest minds of the ancient world. Lavin explains that the later versions of Matthew depicted in the Inspiration were shown to be physically unappealing, balding old men. It is through his physical appearance that his educational ignorance is explored.
Lavin goes on to state that interestingly, scholars eventually realized that the figure truly depicted in the works was actually based on Socrates.When applied to the image of Matthew in Calling, the idea of the beautiful being ignorant while the ugly is knowledgeable is somewhat shocking. The gentle, educated man sitting at the table with the tax collector appears to have more of the makings of a saint than does the homely looking man who is shown to be writing the bible. But it is that man who has become so physically hideous who is the more educated of the two versions; the Matthew in Calling is essentially a lie.He is placed in a situation where he appears to be more in control of himself, and thus, more likely to be spiritual. But he has a knowledge base at that point which prevents him from fully devoting himself to his religion.
It is not until he is able to rid himself of all knowledge (and along with that, to also becomes somewhat decrepit) that he is able to give himself entirely to God. Once again, the paradox is achieved. Matthew is now a spiritual scholar, yet at the same time, he is entirely ignorant of his subject matter and can only understand what he is accomplishing through divine intervention. Matthew in the Calling is much more knowledgeable but is incapable of having the spiritual connection that his “dumber” self eventually manages to secure.Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew manages to show the paradoxical existence of saints and shows them to be entirely human while at the same time, still touched by God’s hand. Through his use of chiaroscuro, he managed to give the painting a visual importance which enhanced the spiritual and realistic meaning of the piece, while also influencing a number of painters during and after the Baroque period. Caravaggio’s depictions of Saint Matthew also allow for the images to be given an extended humanity as well as a slightly more realistic spirituality.
By exploring the way Saint Matthew’s image changed between the Calling and the Inspiration, the true paradox of Saint Matthew’s existence in the church is seen more easily, and the prior painting can be further understood.