Caravaggio completed his “Calling of St. Matthew” in 1600 for the chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it remains today.
There are many artistic elements on which we could focus in this painting:
- Caravaggio’s use of light. Notice how a beam of light breaks in on the dark (like Christ had just surprised a group of gangsters in the back room). The light slants across the painting and illumines the tax collectors’ faces.
- Christ’s pointing hand. When I look at this painting, the first thing I see is Jesus’ hand. Commentators say the hand is identical to Adam’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
- The “Zoro-like” face of Christ, half obscured. The partially-lighted face of Christ is not unkind, but neither is it kind. Jesus’ expression is all-business; he is a man on a mission. The obscuring of his eyes creates a sense of mystery; Matthew does not – indeed, cannot – know what lies in store.
- The cross in the window above Jesus’ hand. The juxtaposition of cross and hand foreshadow the crucifixion.
- Matthew’s legs already moving. Notice how Matthew’s legs are already in motion; despite still being seated, he is about to stand and follow.
What draws me most to this painting is Matthew’s slumped shoulders and downcast look. It is as though Matthew – even though his feet may be ready to follow – yet is not ready to follow. I sense shame here, and maybe feeling of unworthiness. A pile of money, just counted, is on the table and signifies Matthew’s past. The noble-looking Jesus, by his pointing, reminds Matthew that there is more to life than counting coins in a back room. “There is a world out there,” the pointing hand and rays of light suggest, “and I am calling you – yes, you! – because I want you to follow me.”
In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus first called Peter, Peter begged Jesus to “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In this painting, Matthew seems to say the same.
I have a hunch that I am not the only one who identifies with Matthew in this painting. Like Matthew I, too, have my “back rooms” where I turn craven and count coins. Yet Jesus points at me; and Jesus points at you. Yes, you and me, who have need of a physician. Yes, you and me, sinners – and not the righteous – are the ones whom Jesus calls. It is you and me whom he invites to help in in his mission and to whom he says, “Follow me.”
If we accept Jesus’ invitation, we will discover as Matthew discovered, that we human beings experience life to be most full, not when we hunker in our back rooms count coins, but when we rise up and follow Jesus. I pray that God may give us the grace to do so.