Saint Matthew and the Angel by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602, Oil on canvas, 295 x 195 cm, Formerly part of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, destroyed 1945, bpk Bildagentur / Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Art Resource, NY

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Caravaggio’s First Inspiration

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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.

 

References

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


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