My pearl among women and I recently had a short break in Rome. One of the great things about Rome is that there are wonderful works of art and architecture everywhere you turn. On our way to the Pantheon we called into the church of San Luigi dei Francezi (also known as the ‘French Church’) near the Piazza Navoni. In this church we found three masterpieces by Caravaggio on display – ‘The Calling of St Matthew’, ‘The Inspiration of St Matthew’ and ‘The Martyrdom of St Matthew’. These pictures have been displayed in this same church for over 400 years. The Calling of St Matthew dates to 1599-1600.
The painting shows the story of the calling of the tax-collector Matthew, also known as Levi, from Matthew 9:9: ‘And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.’
Caravaggio depicts Matthew sitting at a table with four other tax collectors. Jesus and Peter have entered the room, and Jesus is pointing at Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table.
Some points of interest:
- The scene is gloomy and darkly lit until Christ brings the true light to the dark space.
- Jesus and Peter are simply dressed in contrast to the tax collectors.
- Jesus and Peter are barefoot – a symbol of holiness?’
- Christ, dressed in red, points at Matthew as he calls him
- Matthew is surprised and points to himself as if to say ‘Who, me?’
- A coin is stuck in Matthew’s hat symbolising the importance of money to him and his right hand is still reaching for the coins. If he answers the call he is going to have to give this up.
- The position of Jesus’ hand reflects that of God in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. As God is about to give life to Adam so Christ is about to give life to the spiritually dead Matthew.
- The two tax collectors on the left seem to be so engrossed in the counting of their takings that they do not even register Christ’s presence. If Matthew does not follow Christ he will become like them.
- The two tax characters on the right form a barrier between Matthew and Jesus and one is carrying a sword. These are the thugs who help Matthew extort his taxes. Matthew will have to break free of these companions to follow the Saviour. There is a gap between Jesus and Peter and the other characters in the painting. Matthew must cross that gap.
- Christ’s feet are already pointing towards the door – Matthew must make a quick decision to follow him.