The Calling of St. Matthew

The Calling of St. Matthew is one of the three paintings Caravaggio completed for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.  The execution of the three great works established Caravaggio as the most renowned and controversial painter in Rome during his time and also changed the direction of his subject to focus almost solely on religious compositions. 


In the three paintings, created between 1598-1601, Caravaggio used a dramatic modern twist of realism instead of the traditional pictorial idealizing forms of Mannerism that normally represented saints.  He used regular people as his models and painted them with realistic features.  He had a tendency to go against tradition giving new meaning and interpretation to traditional ideas in religious painting.  This technique created quite a stir in the public but placed Caravaggio at the head of the new naturalistic movement in Rome. 

In The Calling of St. Matthew we see Levi being summoned by Christ to become St. Matthew.  The tax collector, wearing contemporary Italian clothing, is seated at a table counting money.  Surrounding him is a group of young men wearing swords at their sides.  Christ has entered the room with a burst of light and points at Levi calling him to follow while the saint points to himself as if asking if Christ means for him.  The painting reflects a sense of time as we seem to understand what took place prior to this event and what will take place next. 

Caravaggio used dramatic tenebrism in the piece which brought a new dramatic and emotional intensity to the realism.  Where the light hits the men they are solid and bold yet the painting is full of deep shadows that work to veil parts of the figures.  Christ is almost entirely in the shadows with the exception of his face and his right hand which is pointing and summoning Levi to follow him.  The perspective and structure of the work draw the viewer into the room.

Following the completion of the three Matthew pieces, some thought Caravaggio had failed while others praised him as an artistic visionary.

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