Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Caravaggio, Calling of St Matthew, 1599

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, 1599

I have loved this painting for a lifetime. I have seen it over and over and over again in reproduction. I have referred to it, I have been mesmerized by it, and when I was writing A Culture of Light, a postcard of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew was pinned above my desk. I have always thought of The Calling of St Matthew as the most convincing evidence that the cinematic existed centuries before the cinema was invented. For me, this painting is exquisite.

Today I visited the Contarelli Chapel – fifth on the left as every guidebook repeats – in the San Luigi dei Francesi, just off the Piazza Navona. I stood before The Calling of St Matthew for the first time. The work is so astonishing that I felt my heart begin to race. Really. Four hundred years later and the painting is as clear, and as unfathomable as it must have been in Caravaggio’s time. It is a painting that fills its viewer with joy, with hope, as though the light that sweeps without hestiation through the scene catches us in its magic.
The Electrical Lights ruin the painting
Let me begin with the narrative.  According to the scriptures, when Christ calls Matthew, the dishonest tax collector, to be his disciple, Matthew already knows Christ. And so opens the first ambiguity of the Caravaggio’s depiction. Who is Matthew? Is it the bearded man pointing his left hand? And if so, who does the finger point to? Is it to himself? Is it to the man on his right with the glasses? Or is it to the young boy, head hung in shame or humility (whatever the case may be) because he recognizes Christ. I have never admitted that I was unsure of which of the three figures represented the man who would become St Matthew. Critics and commentators usually assume it’s the bearded man pointing his finger because he most resembles the man in the other two paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi’s St Matthew cycle: The Inspiration of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew. But after today, I am not so sure. I know, without a doubt, there are a number of possible interpretations. Today, caught up in the vigor of this breathtaking painting, I became more convinced than ever, Caravaggio wanted it to be ambiguous. There’s no telling which one is Matthew. It could be any one of the three of them.

Of course, the most extraordinary element of The Calling of St Matthew is the light. More distressing than the rail that stops visitors entering the chapel and thus demands that we contemplate The Calling of St Matthew and The Martyrdom of St Matthew from an angle, is the harsh electrical lighting that becomes activated by a euro in the light box. I assume that in Caravaggio’s day, the chapel, thus the paintings, would have been lit by candles. And while candlelight would not soften the ambiguity of St Matthew’s identity in the painting, it would accentuate and enrich the dramatic lighting effects. The beam of light that falls through the window above and to the right of the scene is what enables the “calling”. The calling is Matthew’s summons from earthly to divine. The beam of light energizes the painting, it is everything. The beam of light ignites the drama as it then moves effortlessly from Christ’s perfect face, to his hand, across the face of the beautiful young boy caught in a moment of absolute wonder, to the hand of the bearded man. The sweep of light, its spilling into the room and across the relay of hand gestures must be one of the great moments of the seventeenth century. If ever we had any doubt that the cinema had predecessors in painting, this beam of light puts them to rest.
Caravaggio, The inspiration of St Matthew, c. 1600

The painting is three dimensional in its composition: while it’s difficult to see because of the crosswise perspective from behind the rail, once we turn to the The Inspiration of St Matthew and we see the dimensionality of the stool on which Matthew rests his foot, a stool that is about to fall out of the frame, and we then turn back to The Calling of St Matthew, everything changes. When we turn back, we see that no only has Caravaggio pushed the figures to the front of the picture plane, but that we are invited to fall into the space, as though into a tavern at the turn of the 17th century. Whether we agree with the critics who call this realism, or those who want it to be naturalism, whichever way we go, there’s going to be indecision and even more ambiguity. I stood there this afternoon, seduced into this vivacious space that is nevertheless silenced in disbelief and reverence for Christ, I realized that Caravaggio entices us into an extraordinary, illusory and impossible world that has only tangential reference to reality. The figures, all of them, including Christ, look like they could have been pulled off the winding cobblestone streets that surround the Church. But Caravaggio paints them into a world that is in motion, in transition between earthly vice and the perfection of spiritual transcendence. And for an hour or so today, I felt, temporarily, as though I too was being called to a life of piety and humility. Such is the power of The Calling of St Matthew.

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