The biblical account of Matthew’s election as an apostle is very short:
‘And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him’ (Matthew 9:9)
Caravaggio was asked to paint The Calling of Matthew for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in 1599. All he had in terms of historical documentation was the above terse fragment in the Bible. Caravaggio imagined The Calling of Matthew taking place in a dingy room somewhere in modern (AD 1599) Rome. In the picture above you can see that Christ and St Peter have just entered the dim and plainly furnished tax office of Matthew the tax collector. Here they encounter five men grouped around a table that is set near a starkly empty wall with a single window at the top. Little light penetrates the window. On the table you can see coins and a money bag as well as an account book and an inkwell from which a quill protrudes. A transaction is taking place. On the left, seated on a chair, a hunched man is counting some coins – he is the tax payer counting his meagre change. The man seated facing us, with the red beard and with the relaxed arms of the child on his shoulder – is Matthew the tax collector. Directly behind the tax payer a bespectacled old man wearing a fur trimmed coat peers down at the table, as if to check that all sums have been calculated correctly. Opposite the tax payer with his back towards us wearing fine striped black and white livery sits the tax payers minder.
Caravaggio has painted the exact moment when Christ say’s ‘Follow me’ (in the above quote from the Bible). i.e. the point at which Christ has spoken his two word command. Matthew, at once astonished and compelled, points a finger to his own chest as he gazes up into the eyes of Christ. There is incredulity in his expression and a question frozen on his lips:
He continues, absent-mindedly, to count out one last coin of the tax payers change, but he knows in which direction his destiny is taking him. Look at his legs underneath the table, they are braced as if preparing to stand up and step into their new existence. The command is irresistible. Christ fixes the tax collector with a hypnotizing stare. Even as he reaches out towards Matthew, he has already begun to leave the room: look at his feet, half hidden in shadow, they are turned away and heading outside. All has been done that needed to be done.
The painting is a chiaroscuro: a play of light and dark. Christ brings light into the darkness, just as he brings illumination and divine purpose to Matthew’s dreary, money grabbing existence. The pictures main light source runs parallel to Christ’s raised finger. The light flashes onto the face of Matthew. The light probably emanates from a source such as a high window or an open door down a flight of steps.
The painting is about contrasts. Not only the contrast of light and darkness but also the contrast of Matthew and his companions foppish modern clothes and the solemn robes and barefoot simplicity of Christ and St Peter. They are like an apparition of a distant sacred past crashing into a profane Roman present.
The past is always purer. The present always profane.