The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) by Caravaggio
Interpretation of Baroque Biblical Painting

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The Calling of St Matthew
By Caravaggio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)


Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio


Name: The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Artist: Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: History painting
Movement: Italian Baroque art
Location: Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Italian Baroque artists
like Caravaggio, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Calling of Saint Matthew

Caravaggio, one of the best artists of all time, is best known for his highly realistic style of Baroque painting which - together with the classicism of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) - effectively buried the artificial idiom of Mannerism and revitalized large scale religious art in Rome and Naples. Although cursed with a violent nature, Caravaggio was one of the most influential Italian artists of the 17th century. Orphaned by the plague in 1584, he learned painting in Milan from Simone Peterzano, and around 1592 moved to Rome where - thanks to genre paintings like The Cardsharps (1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth) - he rapidly acquired several patrons, one of whom - Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte - helped him to gain his first major public commission for the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel, in San Luigi dei Francesi. It involved two pictures: The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600) and The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600). Both works were an immediate success, and were followed by a series of masterpieces that made him the most exciting painter of religious paintings in Rome. What made Caravaggio so unique, was the true-life naturalism that made his figures seem completely real. Unfortunately, some conservative ecclesiastics considered his style of painting to be too vulgar, although it was much sought after by art collectors and other painters. After his death, his signature style of painting - based on his use of tenebrism and chiaroscuro - would become known as Caravaggism and influence painters throughout Europe.

The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the moment when Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him and become an apostle. The picture was commissioned by the will of Cardinal Matthew Contarelli, who had provided resources and specific guidelines for the decoration of a chapel based on scenes from the life of his namesake, Saint Matthew. The ceiling of the chapel had already been decorated with frescoes by the popular Mannerist painter Cavaliere d'Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) (1568-1640), but because he was too busy with papal work to decorate the walls, Del Monte intervened to secure the job for Caravaggio.

The Calling of Saint Matthew illustrates the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9), when Jesus went into the custom house, saw Matthew at his seat and called to him, "Follow me". According to the story Matthew rose and followed him. In the painting, Christ (on the right, behind Peter) points to Levi, the tax-collector (the bearded man wearing a beret, who also appears in the two other Matthew paintings in the chapel) - and calls upon him to become the apostle Matthew. Although Levi is well to the left of the picture, the viewer's attention is nevertheless drawn to him by the hands pointing at him as well as by the intensity of the light shining on him.

In keeping with his plain, unvarnished aesthetics, Caravaggio borrows from his earlier genre painting (The Cardsharps, The Fortune-Teller), and sets the scene in what appears to be a tavern, rather than a counting house or office. He may have modelled it on earlier examples of Northern Renaissance art - by Hans Holbein and others - featuring money lenders seated around a table. In addition, he introduces some very human interplay into the situation. To begin with, when he sees Christ pointing at him, Levi responds with a gesture, as if to say "Me?" indicating his uncertainty whether he is being addressed, or the younger man slumped on his right. In addition, the ray of light illuminating their faces, draws attention to the two youths, who appear rather lost in this group of older men. While one of them draws back in apprehension and looks to his older neighbour for protection, the other has turned to confront Christ, causing Saint Peter to gesture firmly for calm. Through the visual contrast between their reactions, Caravaggio displays psychological insight into two possible patterns of human behaviour in the same situation.



As he would do in much of his Christian art, Caravaggio conveys the sacred quality of the scene through a series of informal images. Here, for instance, the dandyish tax-collector and his fashionably-dressed associates - all busily counting the day's proceeds - are contrasted with the barefoot Christ. So as well as casting his gaze on a sinner like Levi, Jesus is shown to shine the cleansing light of faith into Levi's dark habitat of financial greed. Notice, for example, how Levi keeps his right hand on the coin he was counting before being interrupted by Christ. The Church saw Christ as a second Adam, a view acknowledged by the fact that Christ's gesture as he indicates Levi, is almost identical to Adam's gesture in The Creation of Adam (1511), part of the Genesis Fresco in the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo. Thus, not unlike the scene over the dinner table, portrayed in Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, London), Caravaggio shows us that miracles occur in the midst of the most mundane situations.

On close inspection, the power of this silent but dramatic narrative lies in its capture of the exact split-second when Christ's summons hangs in the air, when his listeners are still shocked and when Levi himself is caught in suspended indecision. In another second, he will rise up, become Matthew the apostle and follow Christ out of the room. But Caravaggio's masterpiece is no film, and Levi's moment of uncertainty - juxtaposed with the monumental certainty of Jesus Christ - will last for ever.

The Calling of Saint Matthew was painted for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it remains to this day. It hangs alongside two sister paintings, also by Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. The Calling and the Martyrdom were completed in 1600; the Inspiration not until 1602.

Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio

Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601) Santa Maria del Popolo.

Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo.

Death of the Virgin (1601-6) Louvre, Paris.

The Entombment of Christ (1601-3) Vatican Museums, Rome.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602) Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


• For an explanation of other Baroque religious paintings, see: Homepage.

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