Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38
Genealogies of Jesus
Caravaggio’s First Inspiration
Commentary by Chloe Church
Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602) was commissioned by the French Cardinal Matteo (Matthew) Contarelli (Matthieu Cointerel) for his side chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. It should have sat in pride of place as the chapel’s altarpiece, facilitating devotion during the celebration of Mass. Instead, it is believed that the image was rejected by its patron on the grounds that Caravaggio’s interpretation of Saint Matthew was irreverent and unflattering (Hess 1951: 194–95; Puglisi 1998: 94). The rejected painting was bought by Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and subsequently made its way to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin where it was destroyed in the Second World War. It is now only known from black and white photographs and enhanced colour reproductions, which allow us access into Caravaggio’s original intention for this sacred subject.
Caravaggio represented Matthew sitting in a dark, non-specific space. The evangelist is shown, with a furrowed brow, hunched over a book and holding a quill. He is not, however, in control of what he is writing, as we see that he is being physically guided by an angel who stands beside him. The angel leans in close, with lips in direct proximity to the writer’s ear, as if whispering the mystery of the Gospel text.
Adjusting our gaze to the book in Matthew’s lap, we see words in legible Hebrew script, which read ‘The book of the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat…’ Here begins Matthew’s genealogy of Christ. The image indicates divine inspiration, as if the words were directly communicated by a messenger of God.
By combining visual image with Hebrew text, Caravaggio situates Matthew’s Christ within the continuum of Old Testament characters and events. Christ is the genealogical outcome of the line of Abraham and it is from this vantage point that Matthew sets out his Gospel narrative.
The inclusion of this Hebrew inscription suggests an attention not only to the inherent Jewishness of Christ’s lineage but to the biblical author himself. Early Church tradition dating to Jerome (374–420 CE) claims that Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew, to reach a Jewish audience (Howard 1986: 49).
Visualized in Caravaggio’s first version of the subject, this tradition would be curiously lacking in his second, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, which was installed under the patron’s approval and remains in situ to this day.
Hess, Jacob. 1951. ‘The Chronology of the Contarelli Chapel’, The Burlington Magazine, 93.579: 186–201
Howard, George. 1986. ‘The Textual Nature of an Old Hebrew Version of Matthew’, Journal of the Biblical Literature, 105.1: 49–63
Lavin, Irving. 1974. ‘Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio's Two St. Matthews,’ The Art Bulletin, 56.1: 59–81
Puglisi, Catherine R. 1998. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (London: Phaidon)
Von Lates, Adrienne. 1994. ‘Caravaggio, Montaigne, and the Conversion of the Jews at San Luigi dei Francesi’, Gazette des beaux-arts, 124: 107–15
The Descendants of Christ Pantocrator
Commentary by Chloe Church
The Genealogy of Christ is a fourteenth-century mosaic that decorates the southern dome of Chora Church, now the Kariye Museum, Istanbul. In the apex of the dome, we see Christ Pantocrator, a celebrated Eastern Orthodox icon that imagines Christ as ‘God Almighty’ or ‘Ruler of All’. The icon shows Christ gazing towards the beholder with a sober expression. In his left hand, he holds the Holy Bible, and his right hand is lifted in a sign of blessing.
The base of the drum of the dome is decorated with two cycles of Old Testament characters. The lowest cycle depicts a ring of Jacob’s children who represent the tribes of Israel and Judah. Above them we see a cycle of other Old Testament characters who are identifiable as members of Christ’s genealogy as enumerated in Luke 3:25–37, from Adam to Jacob. The name of each ancestor is inscribed above him in Greek, and in some cases an attribute drawn from the biblical narrative is also included. For example, directly below Christ Pantocrator is Adam, who stands above a snake in reference to Genesis 3. In a similar way, Noah holds an ark.
Situated beneath the watchful gaze of Christ Pantocrator, these figures and the narratives they represent fall under the sovereign authority radiating from the central punctum. In Eastern iconography, the use of a visual cycle emphasizes the continuing trajectory of Christ’s reign (Ousterhout 1995: 63). Defying chronological beginnings and ends, the divinity of Christ permeates outwards, throughout the dome and into the space where countless generations of Christian believers gather under his sovereign gaze.
Cimok, Fatih. 2009. Chora: Mosaics and Frescoes (Istanbul: A Turizm Yayınları Limited)
Inomata, Keisuke, Shigeyuki Okazaki, and Kazuhiko Yanagisawa. 2011. ‘Functions of Mountains in Visual Composition of Christian Paintings in the Chora Church’, Intercultural Understanding, 1: 25–30
Ousterhout, Robert. 1995. ‘Structuring in the Chora Parekklesion’, Gesta, 34.1: 63–76
Abraham and his Seed
Commentary by Chloe Church
A common visualization of Christ’s genealogy from the medieval period is the ‘Tree of Jesse’, a motif inspired by Isaiah 11:1, ‘a shoot shall come out of the root of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. In Christian iconography, the Tree of Jesse is compatible with the genetic ancestry of Christ found in Matthew and Luke. A particularly prevalent method for visualizing the Tree is to represent the descendants blossoming out of Jesse’s sleeping body. In other contexts, however, the genealogical tree is disassociated from Jesse entirely, and is instead oriented around another Old Testament figure.
This is a reconstruction (based on nineteenth-century copies) of a twelfth-century illumination by Herrad of Landsberg (1130–95): the first encyclopaedia we know to have been written by a woman. The original was destroyed by fire in 1870. Here it is Abraham (not Jesse) who stands (rather than lies) at the base of the tree, as if enveloped within the trunk. He faces right, peering towards a cluster of stars; a symbol of God’s promise to him of uncountable descendants in Genesis 15:5.
The tree itself is held by God the Father. It grows into a bulbous trunk filled with heads of Abraham’s descendants and Christ’s ancestors. Above these is the full-frontal head of St Joseph, surmounted by the seated figure of the Virgin Mary, and finally Christ and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. On either side of the central trunk, the looping branches enclose busts of various types of figure in the Old Testament: kings, prophets, patriarchs, and Jewish officials. In the top portion of the illumination on either side of Christ are two groups representing early Christians, fronted by two figures who are assumed to be Paul and Peter.
Herrad of Landsberg has drawn on this collective body of biblical figures to represent the genealogical tree, which is topped and tailed by the Godhead. The illumination is imbued with belief in the covenant promise—a promise first given to Abraham and then to ‘his seed’, that seed being Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16).
Hayes Williams, Jean. 2000. ‘The Earliest Dated Tree of Jesse Image: Thematically Reconsidered’, Athanor, 18: 17–23
Parker, Sarah Celentano. 2009. ‘A Delightful Inheritance: Female Agency and the Disputatio Tradition in the Hortus deliciarum’, MFF, 45.1: 124–46
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602 , Oil on canvas
Unknown Byzantine artist :
Mosaic of Jesus and his ancestors (Genealogy of Christ), 1315–21 , Mosaic
Unknown German artist [Herrad of Landsberg] :
The Genealogy of Christ, from The Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum) by Herrad of Landsberg, 19th century copy (original c.1170 or c.1175–1195) , Illumination
Commentary by Chloe Church
A reader of the genealogies of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 is presented with a unique challenge, caused by significant areas of dissimilarity in the texts. Matthew’s genealogy focusses on three sets of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, Solomon to Josiah, and Jeconiah to Jesus Christ. It also includes five named female characters: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
Not only does Luke’s Gospel present a different genealogy by following an exclusively male line through Nathan, son of David, as opposed to Solomon, it also goes back even further than Abraham and recalls Adam, the ‘Son of God’. By doing so, Luke unites Christ with the very origins of humankind.
The clear difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies means that visual interpreters of the subject are faced with a choice: whether to align to a Matthean or Lukan mode of representation.
Because Matthew is the central figure in Caravaggio’s lost Saint Matthew with Angel, and it was originally commissioned for a chapel dedicated to him, we see him inscribing a genealogy that begins with Abraham. And perhaps because of the particular tradition that this Gospel was a ‘Jewish Gospel’, written originally in Hebrew, the artist depicts the evangelist using legible Hebrew script. Both by starting with this Old Testament figure, and taking unusual care to use accurate (not pseudo-) Hebrew, this work reinforces a direct link between Israel’s history and Jesus the Messiah.
In a similar way, the copy of Herrad of Landsberg's illumination shows a genealogical tree centred on God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. This preference for Matthew’s genealogical pattern is further corroborated by the same number of heads in the central trunk as are found in Matthew’s ancestral list.
In contrast, the artist who created the Byzantine mosaic in Chora Church uses the Lukan genealogical pattern. The presence of Adam and Noah in the cycle indicate that the artist wanted to incorporate the farthest reaches of Christ’s ancestry. By maintaining equidistance between each of his ancestors regardless of their position in the chronology, the Christ Pantocrator icon represents the timelessness of Jesus’s divinity, recalling the language of Colossians 1:15–17: ‘the firstborn over all creation … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.
The differences between these three artworks go beyond their historical, geographical, and cultural background. The ways they represent the genealogy of Jesus Christ also reflects a theological disparity that is ultimately guided by their preference for either the Matthean or Lukan lens of interpretation.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy from Abraham. According to Jerome (374–429 CE), Matthew’s Gospel served to support the faith of those who, like the Gospel writer himself, had grown up in the Jewish Law and were entering into a new religious movement. A characteristic of Matthew’s gospel writings is his desire to situate Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is therefore used as a means to communicate his Jewishness. Two of our artists adhere to Matthew’s objective. Caravaggio uses legible Hebrew script to communicate the validity of Christ as Jewish Messiah, and Herrad of Landsberg constructs a tree of Abraham’s descendants that culminates in the figure of Christ who presides over the image.
Alternatively, the Chora Church’s mosaic reflects Luke’s characterization of Christ, as the Saviour of the whole world. The breadth of characters found in Luke’s Gospel—men, women, Pharisees, sinners, criminals, tax collectors—is a means to show Christ as Lord over all, both Gentile and Jew. Luke’s decision to trace the origins of Christ from the beginning of creation shares the inclusivity found in the rest of his Gospel account. The far-reaching descendants who circle Christ Pantocrator in the Chora Church testify to that fact.
The divergences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies serve as precursors for the direction and purpose of the rest of their writings. The value of exploring these genealogical images lies in their capacity to magnify these characterizations, and present the viewer with new ways in which to view and understand the descendants of Jesus Christ.
Brown, Raymond. 1977. The Birth of the Messiah (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Loubser, J. A. 2005. ‘Invoking the Ancestors: Some Socio-Rhetorical Aspects of the Genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke’, Neotestamentica, 39.1: 127–40