CLOSE

15 Things You Should Know About Caravaggio's The Calling of St. Matthew

Sixteenth century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is recognized as one of history’s most influential artists. While he’s an icon now, before his works were inspiring paintings of shipwrecks, assassinations, and dogs playing poker, Caravaggio was just an up-and-coming artist taking his shot with The Calling of St. Matthew. 

1. 'THE CALLING OF ST. MATTHEW' HAS BEEN ON DISPLAY IN THE SAME PLACE FOR MORE THAN 410 YEARS.

The oil painting was commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it has been proudly exhibited since its completion, probably in 1599 and 1600. 

2. IT HANGS BESIDE ITS BROTHERS. 

The Calling of St. Matthew was one of three paintings Caravaggio created for the chapel, all of which centered on the apostle. The Inspiration of St. Matthew presents the sain at work on his Gospel, while The Martyrdom of St. Matthew shows his murder at the orders of the king of Ethiopia.

3. CARAVAGGIO WAS THE CHURCH'S SECOND CHOICE FOR THE JOB.

The late Cardinal Matteo Contarelli (for whom the chapel is named) bequeathed funds to deck the place out with tributes to the saint for whom he was named. The gig originally went to popular Mannerist painter Cavaliere d'Arpino (also known as Il Giuseppino or Giuseppe Cesari), but after completing some frescoes on the chapel’s ceiling, Cavaliere realized he was overbooked. He gave up the commission, paving the way for one of Caravaggio's most admired works.

4. THE PAINTING DEPICTS A SCENE FROM MATTHEW'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE. 

Before he was called by Jesus to join his apostles, Matthew was a greedy and corrupt tax collector. In The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio depicts the moment written about in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 9, which reads: "Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, 'Follow me,' and Matthew rose and followed Him."

5. IT'S NOT CLEAR WHICH MAN IS ACTUALLY MATTHEW.

Jesus and Peter stand on the painting’s right, the former pointing toward Matthew. But which of the cluster of men on the left is this soon-to-be saint? Some scholars have suggested it's the man hunched over coins, noting that the bearded fellow to his right appears to be pointing his way. However, the most popular interpretation is that this bearded pointer is Matthew, his finger pointed gently to his chest. This theory would explain why the radiant light shines down on his face to show he's chosen by the light of the heavens. Still other scholars believe Caravaggio was purposefully ambiguous about Matthew’s identity to suggest God could call upon any of them.

6. THE PAINTING WAS CARAVAGGIO'S BIG BREAK. 

When Cavaliere backed out, Caravaggio's patron Cardinal del Monte recommended the 28 (or 29)-year-old for the coveted job, which was the biggest he had yet received. What Caravaggio came up with rejected the Mannerist style that was all the rage. While his naturalist approach drew some scorn, he was largely met with praise and touted as the head of a new art movement. 

7. THIS SERIES PRESENTED SEVERAL MAJOR CHALLENGES FOR CARAVAGGIO. 

Forget for a moment the incredible amount of pressure the young artist must have felt in taking on a three-piece commission that would serve as a signature of the chapel. Forget that he was completing it around the time Rome was flooded with tourists celebrating the Holy Year declared by Pope Clement VIII. The Calling of Matthew, the first of the trio he completed, boasted more figures than Caravaggio had ever attempted to capture in one painting. Several of these subjects were grown men, as opposed to the androgynous boys of his previous portraits that had secured him the job. And on top of all that, there was the large scale demanded to fill the Chapel's walls.   

8. THE PAINTING IS HUGE.

The Calling of St. Matthew measures 10.5 feet by 11 feet! 

9. CARAVAGGIO USED ANACHRONISM TO MAKE THE CALLING OF ST. MATTHEW MORE ACCESSIBLE.  

Rather than dressing the painting’s figures in the clothes of period he was depicting, Caravaggio utilized contemporary fashion of the late 16th century to better communicate the scene to his audience. The men's finery combined with the way they hover like vultures over the coins and meet in the dark room displays their apparent wickedness. All of these elements make Jesus's choice and Matthew's conversion all the more dramatic. 

10. HE MAY HAVE GOTTEN SOME HELP FROM CAMERA OBSCURA.   

An exhibit in 2011 in Rome's Palazzo Venezia explored the theory that Caravaggio used the optical device to project an image onto the canvas to allow him to trace out his piece. It's speculated that this technique explains why the maybe-Matthew is pointing with his left hand—the projected image would have been reversed.  

11. IT CONTAINS A HANDY ALLUSION TO THE CREATION OF MAN.

Having long worked in Rome, Caravaggio would have no doubt been familiar with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpiece, completed in the early 16th century. Art historians have suggested that the position of Jesus's fingers in The Calling of St. Matthew mimic those of Adam in The Creation of Man as part of a tradition of "seeing Christ as a second Adam." This interpretation connects the pieces as bookends, with Adam being the reason mankind needed saving by Christ.

12. HANS HOLBEIN MAY HAVE BEEN ANOTHER INSPIRATION.

Art historians have noted a similarity in the staging of Caravaggio's tax collectors in The Calling of St. Matthew and the gamblers found in the woodcarving prints of the German artist. In The Gambler (1545), one man is so preoccupied by counting his ill-gotten gains he doesn't notice that death and the devil have come to claim one of his friends. It has been suggested Caravaggio's painting was a reversal, showing one greedy tax collector so focused on his money he doesn't notice the arrival of Jesus. 

13. JESUS'S FEET SUGGEST HE'S ALL BUSINESS.

If you look closely, you'll notice that while Jesus's torso and head are pointed in toward the room, his feet point right, toward the suggested door. Jesus is not waiting for Matthew. The man has been chosen, and the position of Christ's feet show it's time to go.

14. CARAVAGGIO WAS A SINNER PAINTING SAINTS.

When he wasn't creating breathtaking Christian art like The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio was up to no good. A belligerent drunk, his rap sheet included brawls and one incident where he chucked an earthenware dish at a waiter for not knowing how his artichokes should be cooked. Church officials forgave Caravaggio for these mistakes, though, and continued to commission his work. After murdering a man, the artist was sentenced to death and fled Rome, eventually joining the Knights of Malta to try and get a papal pardon—but that ended when he got in a fight with another knight. Eventually, a cardinal decided to intervene and get a pardon for Caravaggio. But a fever got to him before the pardon did: The artist died in 1610, at age 38, but his legacy has lived on for centuries.  

15. THE POPE CALLS THE PAINTING A MUST-SEE. 

The painting scored headlines in early 2015 when Pope Francis declared during a visit at the University of Santo Tomas, "If you have time, go see the picture that Caravaggio painted of this scene." He went on to suggest the centuries-old piece is about how God gives second chances, adding, "The important thing is to let yourselves be loved by him.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Art
The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is
iStock
iStock

The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Art
This 77-Year-Old Artist Saves Money on Art Supplies by 'Painting' in Microsoft Excel
iStock
iStock

It takes a lot of creativity to turn a blank canvas into an inspired work of art. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi makes his pictures out of something that’s even more dull than a white page: an empty spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

When he retired, the 77-year-old Horiuchi, whose work was recently spotlighted by Great Big Story, decided he wanted to get into art. At the time, he was hesitant to spend money on painting supplies or even computer software, though, so he began experimenting with one of the programs that was already at his disposal.

Horiuchi's unique “painting” method shows that in the right hands, Excel’s graph-building features can be used to bring colorful landscapes to life. The tranquil ponds, dense forests, and blossoming flowers in his art are made by drawing shapes with the software's line tool, then adding shading with the bucket tool.

Since picking up the hobby in the 2000s, Horiuchi has been awarded multiple prizes for his creative work with Excel. Let that be inspiration for Microsoft loyalists who are still broken up about the death of Paint.

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's process in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios