Last year I posted about Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St Matthew’ which we saw in a chapel in the San Luigi dei Francezi church while in Rome on holiday last year. In the same chapel there are two other Caravaggios – ‘The Inspiration of St Matthew’ and ‘The Martyrdom of St Matthew’. This post is about the ‘Martyrdom’ which was the first of the three to be displayed, having hung in the chapel since July 1600.
The theme of the painting is triumph over death.
The painting is based on the tradition that Matthew was murdered at the behest of the king of Ethiopia, Hirticus, who wanted to marry his niece Iphigenia, the abbess of a convent. When Saint Matthew forbade the marriage, Hirticus had him killed.
In the painting we see Matthew about to be stabbed to death. He is lying on the ground at the edge of a sunken baptismal font. Apparently, baptism by immersion was the norm in Milan during Caravaggio’s childhood rather than the baptism by sprinkling performed in Rome. Baptism by immersion symbolises death, burial and resurrection. Paul said:
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:3–5).
Matthew appears to cower at the feet of his executioner who is ready to strike the fatal blow. However, closer examination suggests that Matthew is not cowering in fear but is reaching up to grasp a palm branch thrust towards him by an angel. With its association with Palm Sunday, in Christian iconography the palm branch symbolises the victory of martyrs and the victory of the spirit over the flesh. This is not a moment of terror but a moment of triumph. Matthew’s body may die but his spirit will live on.
Matthew has already been wounded, there is a trickle of blood coming from his side, reminding us of the wound in the Saviour’s side. The juxtaposition of the blood and the baptismal font points towards the saving and cleansing power of Christ’s blood.
The altar appears to have a Maltese cross painted on it – the Maltese Cross is said to be the symbol of the ‘Christian warrior’. Some commentators have interpreted the single candle burning on the altar as representing the all-seeing eye of God, ever present and aware of His martyr’s sacrifice or, perhaps, the fugitiveness of human life.
Just behind the assailant we glimpse a dark-haired bearded figure in dark clothing over a white loin cloth – this is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote:
“The self-portrait, in this instance, reads like a mea culpa. If Caravaggio had actually been there, he suggests, he would have had no more courage than anyone else. He would have fled like the others, leaving the martyr to his fate. According to the logic of his own narrative, he remains unbaptized and therefore outside the circle of the blessed. He is a man running away, out of the church and into the street.”