Caravaggio, “The Calling of Saint Matthew” 12

Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle

Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew

God calls in mysterious ways. Many times he speaks to us subtly through the ordinary circumstances of our lives. When we are too caught up in the circumstances themselves to hear his voice, He might resort to more abrupt measures to catch our attention. In Saint Matthew’s case, Jesus literally walked right into his life and called him to follow. Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” brilliantly captures the moment of the call. It was an ordinary day at the office for Levi the tax collector. The coin in his hat signifies that his thoughts were absorbed in his profession — money. No wonder he was caught off guard when the austerely dressed rabbi and his ragged disciple, Peter, entered the money chamber. He leans back into the security of his companions as if he wants to resist the light Jesus ushers into the room. The expression on his face reveals that he knows the rabbi hasn’t come begging for alms. His own gesture pointing at himself indicates that he knows the master has come for him.

Matthew’s posture is ambiguous. Leaning backwards, he feels pulled in one direction by his identity, who he has become and who he may turn out to be, represented by the younger and older man crouched over the coins on the table, oblivious to Christ’s presence in the room. With his right hand, he reaches out to grasp his livelihood, as if for one last time, but he does not clutch it. His legs are poised to stand up and walk away from the table with Christ, leaving his comfortable lifestyle behind.

Squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle — this instant of discernment in Matthew’s mind seems like an eternity. For in the balance, he weighs his eternity. His decision to stay or to follow will determine the course for the rest of his life and it could mean the difference between ultimate happiness and ultimate misery. At the moment, he is deliberating over which is which. Will the overwhelming radiance of Christ’s light overpower the darkness of his confused inner world? Man proposes and God disposes… Or is it not the other way around? Christ is the one who calls, but Matthew is the one who must decide whether he will respond to Christ’s initiative. The creator of the universe, who mad man free, does not override man’s free will. The choice to follow Christ is ours, as is the choice to continue living in the dark.

In this painting, light and darkness hearken back to the first chapter of Genesis. Christ introduces light in to Matthew’s chaotic world and separates light from darkness allowing Matthew to see for the first time what it good and to be desired; and what is bad and to be avoided.

Christ’s hand also curiously resembles the hand of Adam in Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Man.” One notable difference is that Christ’s hand in the Caravaggio painting is pointed in the opposite direction toward Matthew. This subtle detail adds theological dimension to the painting: God and man are united in Christ the savior, the new Adam, who beckons the sinner to a new life of grace. He did not come to condemn, but to save what is lost. His invitation is a call to participate in something altogether new: a new Creation heralded through evangelization.

As we know from the Gospel, Matthew would respond to Christ’s call and soon reiterate that call through his preaching and writing: “Repent and believe the good news! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

12 comments

    • It’s like peeling an onion — one layer at at time. God knows what is at the core. For us, it is an unraveling experience. Shocking at times, but beautiful also. Life is an adventure.

  1. Caravaggio is one of all time favorite artists. His work with light and shadows never ceases to amaze me. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of this painting. I learned alot about it. God Bless.

    • He remains the all-time master of chiaroscuro. He not only uses it for artful effect but also as a medium for meaning in almost all his paintings. I love artwork from all the Baroque masters, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be Caravaggio (sorry Rembrant!). Thanks for the comment.

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