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Caravaggio - VM - Mischa Willett

Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew
The Quietest Painting in the Room
by Mischa Willett
In 1598 a painter named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made the first of his many visits to the Sistine Chapel in Rome to see the great painting that his namesake had called forth. We think of the Sistine ceiling as heavenly and eternal, but it helps to remember it was new once, and shocking.
When, not 20 years later, Caravaggio unveiled The Calling of St. Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, the resonance would have been immediately clear. The dramatic centre of the painting is Christ's hand, pointing into the crowd, and it's the same hand, visually speaking, that hangs from the Sistine ceiling. Caravaggio had copied elements of Michelangelo's thought before—the former's Conversion of Saul for example features prominently the rear-end of a horse which never appears in the biblical account, but which was featured in Michelangelo's Vatican fresco of the same scene—but this copy of a gesture is so direct and so central to both paintings that the mimicry ought to give pause. What does it mean then, this limp wrist, the Creator's finger nearly touching Adam's, and Michelangelo Caravaggio's appropriation of Michelangelo Buonarotti's signature piece of painterly theology?
Matthew was a tax collector, and so the scene of his calling in Caravaggio’s painting is the interior of a house where taxes would be rendered. Though it appears to be mid-day (with a slant of light so steep, one would only actually see it in the early morning or in northern climates), the room is all shadows, suggesting bribery, double-dealing, and the general crookedness of the Roman colonial taxation system.
The characters are dressed as Renaissance Florentines, a choice which does the work of implying pre-conversion Matthew's complicity with the Roman domination system. As a Jew, he should have been working toward God's justice, which was to come to the world through his people. Instead, he's helping an occupying force to exploit them.
The company's dress also suggests Caravaggio's own society's participation in the scene of both exploitation and calling. He knew perfectly well that first-century Palestinians dressed differently from sixteenth-century Florentine-Romans, but re-dressed the characters as his neighbours as a way of implying the theological immediacy of the scene: not this happened, but this always happens! The addition of Renaissance apparel argues not that Caravaggio was a poor historian, but is instead a way of saying such duplicity is still afoot, and such callings are still salvific.
They're counting money at the table and so are surprised by Christ's interruption. The shaft of sunlight cuts a diagonal in the frame and is a pretty important piece of theology itself. Christ is in darkness here and he points along the shaft of light coming from outside, from heaven, at the soon-to-be-converted disciple. Christ is definitely doing the pointing, Caravaggio seems to be saying, but God the Father does the actual calling.
Some of the figures look like they'll jump from the table to take a stab at the intruder. These details shouldn't be overlooked. These are still our responses to Christ’s interruptions. Matthew looks dumbfounded and incredulous. Though the viewer might want to chalk up this response to timidity, Matthew's confusion as he points between himself and the figure next to him may be warranted in this particular representation of the scene, because nothing seems to have been said.
Sometimes, Jesus says things. ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ for one (John 11:43). Even if you're dead asleep, you can hear a voice calling at you with that directness. But in Caravaggio's scene of Matthew's calling, the room is full of silence. It actually would have been full of wooden stools sliding back as toughs rose to meet the intruder: shouts of surprise, the chink of coins, the slip of daggers from sheaths, and the usual barbaric bleating men make when they feel threatened. But not here. This is the quietest painting I've ever seen. Bowls of fruit make more noise than this crew.
If Matthew's gesture is somewhere between wavering and recognition, Christ's is listless and recognizable. But the gesture isn’t new, it's an echo. How many student rooms are outfitted with a close-up of this moment: God's creation of Adam via the languid finger of Michelangelo's version from the Sistine ceiling? That's a smart piece of theology itself, of course. God the Father reaches down out of a cloud of angels to give Adam the spark of life. In the biblical account, the Creator ‘breathes the breath of life’ into his creation, but Michelangelo chooses to emphasize how we are God's handiwork. All the rest of creation is spoken into existence, but the Adam is formed from ‘the dust (or clay) of the ground,’ meaning God got his hands dirty. We were fashioned not with words, but from extant elements in a way that recalls painters or—since it was Michelangelo's true calling—sculptors.
If Adam only looks half-interested in receiving the divine spark, if his gaze looks out but not quite up, not quite at the God who made him, that's because he simply can't. Adam is as blind to the Creator's presence as any of us, but he lifts his hand out into the cloud, into the darkness, hoping to be touched—which is of course, the best any of us can do.
When Caravaggio lifts the gesture whole-cloth—and make no mistake: he stole the rendering from a chapel that sits not a mile away, and that everyone in town had seen—he transposes the figure, again switching the roles, giving Adam's limp gesture to Christ rather than God's active one.
Is the switch an argument about Christ's divinity on the part of the painter, who often portrayed holy subjects as commoners? I don't think so. The way Christ's finger hangs there calling at Matthew, languorously, emphasizes the quietness in which the whole painting is framed. Christ hasn't walked in and pointed at the tax collector like Uncle Sam in a war-recruiting poster. Maybe we could say it this way: a calling isn't usually a shouting. Still and small, the voice goes.
Matthew is about to get created in the exchange just the way Adam was, is about to come alive to himself and to history in a way no one, least of all this poor chap in fancy finery had imagined a few coins ago. But here it is not God calling him but our Second Adam, and his calling is as subtle as a sound of sheer silence.
Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, oil on canvas, 322 x 340 cm, Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio, Italy as Michelangelo Merisi around 1571. He was orphaned at age 11 and apprenticed with a painter in Milan. At age 21 he moved to Rome, where he received his first public commissions which were so compelling and so innovative that he became a celebrity almost overnight. His work became popular for the tenebrism technique he used, which used shadow to emphasize lighter areas. Caravaggio was a fast worker, but he was also arrested repeatedly for his rough behaviour. His technique was as spontaneous as his temper. He painted straight onto the canvas with minimal preparation. Sometimes he abandoned a disappointing composition and painted new work over the top. Much to the horror of his critics, he used ordinary working people with irregular and rugged faces as models for his saints and showed them in recognisably contemporary surroundings. In 1606 Caravaggio's temper went a step too far. An argument with 'a very polite young man' escalated into a swordfight. Caravaggio stabbed his rival and killed him. He chose not to face justice, but leave Rome. He had no doubt that he would quickly obtain a pardon. He went to Naples and from there to the island of Malta, where his temper got him into trouble again. In the meantime important friends in Rome had successfully petitioned the Pope for a pardon, so that he could return. On the way back he fell ill, perhaps with malaria, and a few days later, alone and feverish, he died.
Mischa Willett is a poet and essayist whose work appears in art journals and magazines internationally. Currently, he is teaching in the English Department at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, the dancer and choreographer, Amber Willett, on a hill overlooking Puget Sound.
This is a condensed version of an article published on Cardus, see
ArtWay Visual Meditation May 12, 2013