Levi, the tax collector who becomes St. Matthew, looks up from his table in the customs house—the Gospels tell the story—when Jesus signals him. That simple summons and the astonished response to it are dramatized in “The Calling of Matthew,” one of a trio of paintings by Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio after his native town. He did them for Rome’s “French” Church, San Luigi dei Francesi, close to the Piazza Navona, circa 1600. Walk to the Contarelli Chapel, the fifth on the left, put some euros in the light box, and prepare for your own astonishment.
Rome is a city of baroque splendor, of spectacular, soaring contrasts in its buildings and sculptures. Appropriately, it also houses the largest number of Caravaggio’s pictures in the world. Of these, “The Calling of Matthew” initiates, and calls us to, the master’s complex, dramatic, final phase.
Caravaggio came to Rome, a young man, in 1592. He died in 1610. His life, like his work, was tumultuous, controversial. Through ambition and patronage he made his way into Rome’s thriving Counter-Reformation art scene. Sacked in 1527, the city was in the process of a glorious rebuilding program. San Luigi, begun in 1518, was consecrated only in 1589. Most important, the pope had declared 1600 a Holy Year; the city expected visitors en masse. Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio’s patron, for whom he’d previously painted mostly secular pictures of androgynous boys, got him a commission for his first major religious work. It was also going to be his largest to date.
“The Calling” dramatizes an interruption, an invitation or, more accurately, a command. Levi is “called” to a new life when he least expects it. From left to right, Caravaggio’s pictures depict that life: Matthew summoned, Matthew writing, Matthew murdered. The story ends in the violence of “The Martyrdom.” “The Calling” is really a freeze-frame. Jesus catches Matthew off-guard, in the midst of four companions. He looks up as Jesus, his face illuminated but his body otherwise in shadow, extends his right arm in an action deliberately evoking God’s to Adam on the Sistine Ceiling. In front of Jesus, slightly bending over and turning away from us, Peter repeats the gesture. The conversion has begun, although only Jesus seems to know it.
Caravaggio accepted new artistic challenges in this commission. In addition to sheer size, the painting has more people in it than he had ever put into a single work. Space is also a challenge. The composition has a skewed balance: The Evangelist-to-be is not at its midpoint. Instead, Matthew sits to one side, huddling with his buddies. Jesus and Peter stand on the right. The central figures are two plumed boys, types we associate with Caravaggio’s early secular pictures. Like the other money counters, they are dressed in a cavalier modern style. Jesus and Peter, calling Levi to a new life, paradoxically wear traditional biblical garb. The surly, handsomest youth, bent over the table at the far left, looks uninterested in anything but his money. So does the older, bespectacled figure above him.
Matthew points to himself with his left hand. It’s an awkward gesture (except for a left-handed person) but is justified aesthetically because it extends from Jesus’s dexterous command. Incredulous, Matthew seems to say, “Who, me?” The two youngest boys neither accept nor ignore the summons. We register all these characters as both individuals and parts of groupings.
Figuring how to place and dramatize seven individual people was one of the painter’s problems. Lighting them was another. Caravaggio has begun here to master what became one of his celebrated hallmarks, the use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow) for both theatrical and formal effects.
Coming from the picture’s right side, a clear light illuminates Jesus’ face; it then moves to the left, shining on Matthew and the elegant lad looking toward it. A window radiates a soft haze through the room. But the most powerful light seems to come, appropriately and mysteriously, from outside the picture’s frame, above and to the right of the window. Matthew’s eyes, like the boy’s, gaze in momentary wonder. The other figures are obscured by either darkness or their posture. They are in the picture but they are out of the story, especially the two at the far left.
The lighting affects the work in a supplementary way. In the Contarini Chapel the picture hangs under a real window whose light, depending on the time of day, does to the painting exactly what Caravaggio’s light does within it. Even at the awkward angle from which we view the picture, we read it from left to right, as we do the sequence of the three paintings, but we also read from right to left, from the source of illumination above to its objects below. The drama entails a move between darkness and light, flesh and spirit, an old life and a new one.
Mr. Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
May we be assisted, O Lord, by the prayers of the blessed apostle and evangelist, Matthew, that what our effort obtaineth not, may be granted us by his intercession. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, forever and ever. Amen.