The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600, Oil on canvas, 22 x 340 cm, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

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A Bringing to Light

Uncertainties abound here. It is not immediately clear which of the figures around the table is Matthew. However, the appearance of the saint in two companion works in the same chapel (The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) suggests that Matthew is the bearded figure in the Calling.

Matthew is himself not clear who is being called, as indicated by his quizzical expression, and his own ambiguous pointing gesture. Light streams in and illuminates his face, but not through the window that is visible. It comes from an unseen source above the figure of Christ, who stands to the right, partially obscured behind St Peter (the figure with his back to the viewer).

The upper edge of the shaft of light ends at the head of the youth in red and yellow, and makes us wonder for a moment who is being picked out. Christ’s indeterminate pointing gesture adds to this uncertainty.

It has often been remarked that Christ’s gesture echoes the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. It is difficult to say whether this visual quotation is iconographically or theologically significant. It may be that Caravaggio is simply making a reference to another well-known painting that would have been known by the Roman ecclesiastical elites, including the Contarelli Chapel’s patron, Cardinal Matthieu (i.e. ‘Matthew’) Cointerel (thus the chapel’s dedication).

In this Roman context, Peter’s position between the viewer and Christ is likely to suggest his role as the archetypal apostle. Here, as in his ordained role as leader of the church on earth, he mirrors Christ, and helps us to see and understand his purposes.

The gestures and gazes here communicate a more vivid question, with a less certain answer, than we see in many other treatments of the theme. Smart clothes in rich fabrics, coins, a velvet hat with a brooch, all indicate that a lot must be given up if this call is to be heeded. Indeed, Matthew’s martyrdom, depicted on the facing wall of the chapel, tells us that it cost him everything.

But at this point the outcome is not certain. At the heart of this painting is uncertainty and strong contrast: contrasts of dress, of darkness and light, of belonging and identity. There are two possible outcomes. The stress falls on the choice Matthew must make and on the mystery of divine action.



Gilbert, Creighton. 1995. Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Press)

Pericolo, Lorenzo. 2011. Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative (London: Harvey Miller Publishers)

Puglisi, Catherine. 1998. Caravaggio (London: Phaidon)

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