Grace Illuminated by Shadow: Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)I know that I am by no means the only one who is drawn by work of Caravaggio, by no means the only one seduced and transformed by its play of light and shadow, its realism, and its glimpses of grace held in relief by human brutality and disarray. Nor, to be sure, am I alone in my devotion to The Calling of St. Matthew, one of three pieces Caravaggio painted at the turn of the 17th century celebrating the life of the evangelist and adorning the Contarelli Chapel of Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi. The piece—perhaps Caravaggio’s most celebrated—captures a particular moment from the Gospel of Matthew:

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him [9:9, NAB].

Immediately following, Jesus is at table with many tax collectors and sinners, and causing no small amount of murmuring and scandal among onlookers. In response to the criticism of the company he kept, Jesus said to the crowd, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” [9:12-13, NAB]. Fertile ground for prayer and theology both, I will here try to highlight a mere three characteristics of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, which—it is my hope—might bear some good fruit in your own spiritual life.

First, as Andrew Graham-Dixon notes in his biography, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, all of the artist’s religious paintings can be understood as “re-enactments or reimaginings, closely akin to the vivid theatricality of Franciscan devotion” [145]. As St. Francis kindled Christian devotion by establishing the Christmas creche, so Caravaggio invites us to imagine the stories of faith in a similarly realistic manner. The point, here, is to be able to see biblical scenes and to encounter the world of Christ in the here and now. Caravaggio artistically set the stage for such encounters by decorating some of Rome’s many churches for the countless pilgrims who journeyed to the Eternal City’s holy places. In using of ordinary people as models for saints—even for the Blessed Mother and for Christ himself—and in placing them in ordinary settings, Caravaggio offered to the pilgrims familiar images; he presented them with people they felt they knew and places that they could almost have had visited. The pilgrims came—indeed, they still come—to these holy sites, as T.S. Eliot observes, “to kneel/where prayer has been valid.” Pilgrims flood to holy sites to touch ground burnt by grace and to breathe air still sweetened by mercy. And, thanks to Caravaggio, these places are all the more accessible. They are places that pilgrims know. Caravaggio invited each pilgrim to place him- or herself in the scenes that they found on the chapel walls—to be with Matthew in this far-too-ordinary room and to maybe, just maybe, therein encounter Christ.

Second, Caravaggio painted Jesus coming to Matthew in an ordinary room—perhaps even in a dark and grimy room not unlike those often frequented by the artist during his many nights consuming alcohol and flesh in Rome’s bars and brothels, those rooms just beyond the dark and violent streets where his nights concluded with anger, bravado, and soon-to-be bloodied swords. Despite the fashions of the art scene that surrounded him and the pressures to win the Church’s patronage, Caravaggio exhibited no need in his art to improve upon the world in which he lived. With the beauty of Michelangelo’s art haunting the recent past, and with the new Baroque rising up all around him, Caravaggio offered a spectacle that stood, as Graham-Dixon describes, “poised between the sacred and the profane” [89]. Neither attentive only to a messy humanity in extremis [65], nor only to an ethereal and immaculate heaven, Caravaggio’s imagination held the strain of a grace that only acts in the commonplace—of a light that moves in and through darkness. Graham-Dixon’s analysis is helpful here:

The picture’s main light source is high and to the right, to suggest daylight flooding in from above, perhaps through an open door and down a flight of stairs. In flashes on to the face of Matthew, along a diagonal parallel with the line traced by Christ’s golden halo and his outstretched, spotlit, beckoning had. It is the light of ordinary mundane reality, yet it is also the light of God [196].

That which is most spiritual (like receiving the call of God) plays out in the material world—in the very stuff created by God and proclaimed (sometimes against all evidence) by God to be “Good.” Indeed, Caravaggio does not allow us to forget that the material is the only place that the spiritual might appear.

Finally, it is worth noting that in this piece, Caravaggio captures the precise moment that Matthew hears Jesus’ words—it’s the breath just after Jesus’ call with all its irresistible possibility hanging in the air, and just before the evangelist continues: “And he got up,” which reads, and appears in the painting, as the only inevitable outcome to this invitation [195]. In a manner I have never seen elsewhere, The Calling of St. Matthew illuminates the moment that grace turns things, the moment that it transforms a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. Caravaggio—a man whose life was as ferocious as his art is compelling—invites us to contemplate the call of God and the expectant silence that immediately follows. With all of his talent brought to bear on this painting, Caravaggio pleads with us to come to see ourselves in/as Matthew, to hear the call of Christ, and to then have faith and courage to respond.