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Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew

Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600, oil on canvas (Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

We're in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi here in Rome and we're looking at the paintings by Caravaggio in the Contarelli chapel. There are three paintings; the painting on the left shows the calling of Saint Matthew. Saint Matthew would become one of the apostles of Christ but this is the moment just before the moment of transition that is his spiritual awakening. And this idea of capturing the moment of spiritual awakening, a moment of conversion, was something that interested baroque artists like Caravaggio. Here's the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that Caravaggio has painted: "As Jesus went on from there He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collectors booth. 'Follow me,' he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him." Such a simple passage But so profound. Caravaggio has given us something that is distinctly Earthbound that emits only the barest hint of the spiritual in the hairline halo above Christ's head. And it's a very interesting composition because Christ the main figure here, and Matthew too, are both a little bit lost. Christ stands behind Saint Peter, and his body is covered by Saint Peter except for his head in his right arm which reaches out to point to Matthew and then Matthew is a little bit lost among this group of five colleagues. Matthew is a tax collector and they're here looking at the money that they have collected. Both figures are identified by light and by gesture. The light streams in from an unseen source just above Christ's head and moves from the upper right at a diagonal down to Matthew Christ almost languidly Extends his hand, but Matthew responds by pointing to himself with vigor as if he's saying You've got the wrong guy. Why would you call me? I'm a tax collector. Here I am, counting my money. I'm in a tavern Caravaggio dressed the figures in contemporary clothing. There's very little about this that looks like a spiritual moment. The art of the High Renaissance creates a sense of the divine by making figures ideally beautiful But Caravaggio's figures are, as you said, earthbound They look like common people that Caravaggio might have seen on the streets of Rome This is set in a tavern in a bar in a lowly place What's wonderful to me is the way that Matthew is in transition. He's pointing to himself as though saying, "it's me that you might want?" in total disbelief But his right hand is still reaching out to the money that he's collected so he's divided in that way And there's a sense of a real caught moment: that figure on the upper left is examining the coins, the figure close to us on the left is counting them with his right hand, the figure on the right corner of the table leans and looks out at something outside the space of the painting. The figure right next to Matthew has his arm on his shoulder and yet this profound moment of spiritual transformation. The characteristic that Caravaggio is most known for is his intense naturalism, and he creates the sharp contrast between light and shadow Creating a vividness in a sense that the bodies have weight and mass that is astonishingly Naturalistic. These figures are so close to us that we feel as though we could reach out to touch them. In fact, there's a space at the table that almost looks like it's waiting for us. This is a painting like so much of Baroque art that breaks down the distance the separation between the world of the painting and our own world. Look at the way that Christ reaches forward to Matthew. It is mimicking the way that God reaches out to Adam in the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But, the hand is actually derived from Adam's hand, and this is based on the idea that Christ is the Second Adam. That Christ brings us salvation where Adam cost the fall into sin But I'm really interested in this pointing because we have Christ pointing- we have Peter pointing- only slightly more assertively than Christ does, and in a way Peter does stand between Christ and man. He is the founder of the church And then this more forceful pointing that Matthew does and there's also the issue of attention Matthew is looking at Christ And Peter, but the figures at the left side of don't even seem to notice those spiritual figures. They are focuses on their earthly So there is this wonderful contrast between those that are aware of the spiritual and those that are not There's so much We could talk about in this painting But it's important to remember that this is just one of three in this a tiny little chapel all dedicated to st. Matthew