The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600) by Caravaggio
Interpretation and Analysis of Baroque Religious Painting

Pin it

The Martyrdom of St Matthew
By Michelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600)


Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio


Name: The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600)
Artist: Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement: Baroque art
Location: Contarelli Chapel, 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
Baroque painters like
Caravaggio, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

One of the best history painters of his day, Caravaggio is famous for his naturalistic style of Baroque painting which breathed new life into large-scale Biblical art, in Rome and later Naples. Although loutish and violent in his private life, he remains one of the most influential Italian Baroque artists of the 17th century. The Martyrdom of St Matthew, along with its sister work The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), were designed for the Contarelli Chapel, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. They were his first major commission and were secured with the assistance of his principal patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte (1549-1627). Within five years, Caravaggio was established as the leading painter of religious paintings in Rome. More controversially, he was famous for painting figures not as ideal creations but as real people with all their natural flaws and defects. Despite a short and tempestuous life, his style of "Caravaggism" was a major influence on giants like Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt (1606-69), and he remains one of the best artists of all time.

Following instructions left by Cardinal Matthew Contarelli, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio depicts the murder of Matthew the Evangelist, who was cut down while celebrating Mass by a solder sent by Hirticus, the evil King of Ethiopia. Hirticus had been outraged when Matthew censured him for lusting after his own niece, Iphigenia, who was a nun and abbess of a convent and therefore off-limits.

A huge work, measuring 323 x 343 cm (127 x 135 inches), X-rays have revealed that Caravaggio made two false-starts before deciding on the final design of the composition. His first attempt resembled the Mannerist painting of Cavaliere d'Arpino (1568-1640), who had already decorated the chapel's dome with fresco paintings. It included an assembly of small figures set against massive architectural elements. The second attempt featured another crowd scene, also defined by perspective, but this time more in the style of High Renaissance painting practised by Raphael (1483-1520) and later by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Neither of these initial attempts to comply with Contarelli's guidelines met with the approval of Caravaggio who, it seems, had already started to develop his own more dramatic idiom in which figures were defined by light and dark, and where all space - especially backgrounds - were regulated by the use of shadow.

At this point, no doubt feeling very frustrated, Caravaggio abandoned the Martyrdom and turned instead to its sister work, The Calling of St Matthew. Although identical in size, the Calling was easier because the scene took place in a mundane setting, and he was able to draw on his earlier genre painting (The Fortune Teller and The Cardsharps) for ideas. Once he finished the Calling, he returned with renewed energy and confidence to the Martyrdom, determined to paint it his way.

The third and final version is simpler and more powerful. There are no buildings, fewer figures and the action takes place right in front of the viewer. It is also the first large-scale work to feature the dramatic Caravaggist tenebrism that focuses attention on the key areas of the painting, just as a spotlight picks out a singer or actor on stage. In this case, the focus is the assassin, moments before he plunges his sword into the prone figure of Saint Matthew. The two principal actors are surrounded by numerous spectators recoiling in horror from the violence of the scene and the death-blow to come.

By some stroke of magic, Caravaggio captures the moment of highest drama - Matthew's last few seconds of life - just as he did with The Calling of St Matthew. In the same way that a photograph freezes time, so Caravaggio's paintbrush freezes the murderous assassin, the hapless apostle, and all the bystanders, in their dramatic positions.



Zooming in for a moment, note the angel on the cloud (top right) who stretches downwards to give the Saint the palm of martyrdom. See how Matthew's right hand - far from showing fear at his imminent death - is actually reaching for the palm. These gestures demonstrate that this picture is not about the horror of death, but the welcome given to a martyred Saint. It represents the sort of intense spiritual episode that should have suited Catholic Counter-Reformation art so well. For a three-dimensional example, see: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria) by Bernini (1598-1680).

Although the painting is dark, its key features are well-lit. Thus the white flesh of the killer, the white vestments of Matthew, the illuminated edges and sides of semi-nude figures - all awaiting baptism in the church - would loom out of the dark walls of the chapel with great dramatic effect. In this connection, it is worth noting Caravaggio's unsurpassed mastery of the technique of chiaroscuro - the use of shadow to create realistic volume in his figures.

As well as light and dark, Caravaggio uses arms, legs, bodies and gestures to direct the viewers attention. The positions of the soldier's left arm, the angel's arm and palm, and the Saint's legs, for instance, are all carefully arranged to focus attention on the face of Matthew. Meanwhile the turmoil and movement of the spectators, is balanced to some degree by the horizontal lines of Matthew's prone form, the steps and the altar, as well as the dim background verticals.

Although the Contarelli Chapel painting was very much Caravaggio's own creation, he borrowed elements and poses from a variety of sources. Although Matthew's martyrdom was not a particularly common theme, the subject had been painted a few years earlier by the Italian Girolamo Muziano (1532-92), in the church of Santa Maria Aracoeli. Caravaggio would have been very familiar with Muziano's work, although it seems he was more strongly influenced by the figurative poses in the altarpiece entitled The Death of Saint Peter Martyr (1527-29, Santi Giovanni Paolo, Venice) by Titian (c.1485-1576). However, the overall sense of this earlier work, with its dramatic foliage, is quite different.

A few other details are worth mentioning. The single lighted candle on the altar probably symbolizes the transience of human life, although some art critics interpret it as the ever present eye of God. And the face that emerges out of the deep shadows to the left, is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, placed there as if he were participating in the tragedy, and thus giving it a here-and-now feel. The irony of this is inescapable: six years later he would participate in a real murder, flee the country and spend the rest of his short life as a fugitive.

Explanation of Other Paintings by Caravaggio

Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601)
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Supper at Emmaus (1601)
National Gallery, London.

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

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

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

Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) (1602)
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


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

© All rights reserved.