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
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4and Ram the father of Amminʹadab, and Amminʹadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boʹaz by Rahab, and Boʹaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of David the king.
and Solomon the father of Rehoboʹam, and Rehoboʹam the father of Abiʹjah, and Abiʹjah the father of Asa, 8and Asa the father of Jehoshʹaphat, and Jehoshʹaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziʹah, 9and Uzziʹah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiʹah, 10and Hezekiʹah the father of Manasʹseh, and Manasʹseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiʹah, 11and Josiʹah the father of Jechoniʹah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniʹah was the father of She-alʹti-el, and She-alʹti-el the father of Zerubʹbabel, 13and Zerubʹbabel the father of Abiʹud, and Abiʹud the father of Eliʹakim, and Eliʹakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliʹud, 15and Eliʹud the father of Eleaʹzar, and Eleaʹzar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janʹna-i, the son of Joseph, 25the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Nagʹga-i, 26the son of Maʹath, the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Semʹe-in, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27the son of Jo-anʹan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubʹbabel, the son of She-alʹti-el, the son of Neri, 28the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmaʹdam, the son of Er, 29the son of Joshua, the son of Elieʹzer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliʹakim, 31the son of Meʹle-a, the son of Menna, the son of Matʹtatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boʹaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33the son of Amminʹadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35the son of Serug, the son of Reʹu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36the son of Ca-iʹnan, the son of Arphaʹxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37the son of Methuʹselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahaʹlale-el, the son of Ca-iʹnan, 38the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.