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Painting Theology

Caravaggio - The Calling of St. MatthewThe Gospel of today's Eucharist concisely narrates Christ's calling of St. Matthew. I cannot read it without "seeing" Caravaggio's magnificent depiction of the scene in Rome's church of San Luigi dei Francesi. When teaching, I encourage my students not to restrict theology to the prevalent conceptual mode, but to see it in painting and hear it in music.I would be interested in learning what different viewers "see."

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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I know very little about art outside of medieval iconography, but have found that with Carravaggio, studying the edges of the pictures always pays off. I like the two guys in the foreground. Guy Right is looking beyond the scene, stage right, as if to try to find the source of the light--an authority that is Unseen. He's aware something significant is happening and wants to know what it is.Guy Left isn't making eye contact (like those students who don't want to answer questions in class who pretend to have dropped their pencil, or in this case studying something on the table--money?). He doesn't want to get involved. Neither does the guy in glasses opposite him. In fact, he doesn't even seem to be aware anything is going on. Myopic in the eyes, maybe in the head/heart?

Here's what I see:Schoolboys. A sword.I know that in those days boys and men fought duels at the drop of an insult. Just as in Romeo and Juliet.(Loyola fought duels before founding the Jesuits, and the early Jesuits tried to keep their students from fighting duels.)How beautifully the young noblemen are dressed. How muscular their calves are -- like Billy Elliott's.

One can not be autonomous and in communion, simultaneously.

P.S., Guy Left reminds me of the modern day "Artful Dodger", the one who refuses to acknowledge that the Truths that are self-evident regarding the Dignity of every Human Life and God's intention for Marriage and the Family, are self-evident because they are endowed to us from God, not Caesar.

Another aspect of the painting I find intriguing is that Christ and Peter are dressed in what Caravaggio presumed to be first century garb; while Matthew and companions are dressed as in C.'s own day. The contemporaneity of Christ's call: he comes into every present.

I noticed that the one youngster at the table, is looking up and observing what is going on.The light is on his face---and I would hope that in time, he also would be answering "The Call" as well.

I take it that Levi -- the future Matthew -- is pointing to someone else, while his face bears a "surely you don't mean me?" expression -- as if he knows he is going to have to follow, but makes a last effort to get out of the calling.

There's always so much to study and appreciate in a painting by this master of light and shadows. I'm always amazed by how much he can capture in the depiction of an instant.The figures at the extreme left continue to count their tax collection money, never lifting their eyes to the dramatic light and newcomers in the room. The symbolism of the eyes fixed on the money seems apparent. Interesting, too, is how the viewer has to strain to see the full outline of Christ's forefinger, which is itself bathed in both light and shadow. The finger is still in the process of being extended, causing Matthew to be unsure if it is he who is being singled out. We know that Christ's forefinger will be fully extended in just another split second, making clear to Matthew that he is the one. Look, too, at Christ's legs. The left one is planted firmly, but the right one is positioned to allow him to lean forward for emphasis. Also, Christ's right arm and hand are lifted to the height of his head, perhaps indicating that this is a solemn moment and not just a simple beckoning to Matthew to get up and follow. We don't see Christ's face; only those who look up at him around the table see it. It's their choice to look at him or not. Peter's hand is also important. He seems to be signaling to the boy with the sword, who seems dazzled by the light, to stay still and not to interfere.Caravaggio produced a number of great works, but he died much too young, at 38, I believe, and after a tumultuous life. Who knows how many more masterpieces he would have given us if he'd lived longer.

Levi/Matthew was a tax-collector, and I think the young man on the left is counting his coins, and the old man with glasses is carefully watching. They both seem oblivious to the moment. Matthew, I think, is pointing to himself and wondering, "Me?" Isn't it significant that Christ's figure and face are so under-played? Bob, why do you sah that the figure, also obscure, next to Christ is Peter?There is a website entirely devoted to Caravaggio:

Mulling over this wonderful painting leads one again to the unanswerable question of what, if any, relationship there is between the quality of the art and the quality of the person producing it. Even by the standards of his own day, Caravaggio was no one's idea of a good human being (or even a passable one). And yet look what he turns out!Of course, he's by no means alone. I think Schubert's been cleared of the charge of pederasty, which the critics were playing with some years back, but he may well have died of syphilis. Yet in his last years was capable of such towering works as Die Winterreise and the C-major Quintet. Or Wagner. I find Meistersinger an enormously uplifting work, but thouigh I think we no longer believe that Beckmesser was a caricatured Jew, there wore than enough anti-Semitism in the composer to make up for it Is the Lord trying to tell us something when he gives such genius to such people?Incidentally, this year Meistersinger was broadcast on its proper day of the Feast of St. John's Day (Johannistag, or in this part of the world, more likely to be St.-Jean Baptiste) both on Vermont Public Radio and on Radio Stephansdom, the splendid radio station of the Archdiocese of Vienna, which broacasts not one, but three operas each week. Of course you need a computer and speakers to pick it up.

Joe,Whenever I read something about the painting, the figure is identified as Peter -- as in this excerpt from the website you referenced:"Caravaggio sets a world of brilliant color of bold contrasts of reds greens and golds of the varied textures of velvets rakish feathers and soft fur against the timeless and austere simplicity of Christ and Peter roughly toga-clad and barefoot. He contrasts lightness of gesture and expression with ritual solemnity and the hand of Christ is modeled on Michelangelo's hand of Adam on the Sistine ceiling."One can suggest further that the figure represents the necessary mediation of the Church, with Peter as its representative -- a cardinal affirmation of the Catholic reform. But clearly the primacy is Christ's -- Peter's hand both imitative and tentative.Nicholas,I've long been struck with the genius and anguish of Caravaggio. The late painting of David holding the severed head of Goliath -- a self-portrait of C. -- is one of the most wrenching works of art I know.

Agree that it's interesting that Jesus and Peter are in ancient clothing, but Matthew is in doublet and hose like the boys. Jesus' beard style, though, is . . . more Roman than Jewish?

A large-format copy can be found at: over this wonderful painting leads one again to the unanswerable question of what, if any, relationship there is between the quality of the art and the quality of the person producing it. Even by the standards of his own day, Caravaggio was no ones idea of a good human being (or even a passable one). And yet look what he turns out!Mysterious maybe but not at all suprising. All humans are capable of self-transcendence in one way or another. Suggested reading is Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos."

The strangely limp finger of Christ was intended to mirror the hand of God creating Adam from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. As God created man in Adam, Christ creates a new man from the sinner Matthew.

I have never felt much connection with painting as an art form. I have tried and tried to appreciate the works of the great artists, but none of it resonates with me. Music sends my spirit soaring, but painting... nada. Except for Caravaggio. For some reason I have always had a deep fascination with his paintings. I don't even know what it is but they draw me in. When I was in Rome a few years back, I went out of my way to see this painting and the others with it in the same church. What strikes me is the contrast between Peter's (?) walking staff and the sword of the young man. They are at similar angles.A few puzzles:- the positioning and angle of Christ's feet are surprising in relation to his upper body. Christ is twisting sharply, perhaps suddenly.- it may be reading way too much into the painting, but their appears to me to be a figure in the lower left quadrant of the window. The Virgin Mary?Here's a high resolution image of the whole painting where you can zoom in a lot and see detail:

Caravaggio was a shockingly realistic painter, giving a raw feel of the sexual and criminal worlds where he pursued a very flamboyant career. If there a transcendent religious sense to this? Perhaps, but it demands a fairly daring idea of the Incarnation to find it.Gerelyn brought to our attention a strong erotic dimension of the painting that, being a careless viewer, I had not noticed before; this piquant homoeroticism is found in most of his paintings, notably in his portrayals of John the Baptist. To me the most shocking of his paintings is one in which he shows the Blessed Virgin dead and apparently in a state of decomposition.

I like Nancy's comparison of Money Counter to the Artful Dodger.Music and art? No, I'm too dense to get it. But words and lit. Yes, I get those.

From the kid at the back of the class:The pointing Christ gave rise to the irreverent thought of the picture as a sublime recruitment poster.

Antonio --I'm there with you in the back of the class. The man in the upper left corner immediately struck me as a guy on his cell phone waiting to hear the latest Dow figures, or something like that.

Question: why are the facial expressions of Orthodox saints always so grim? Influence of Mt. Athos?

Perhaps it would be interesting sometime to discuss the marked contrasts between Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" and his "The Calling of Sts. Peter and Andrew." The latter was painted a few years after the first, and it is different from the former in many ways:

Class clowns often have the best insights, and, Ann, you're right! It does look like he's on a cell phone!But even there he's not immune from the call. I can think of two old timey gospel tunes with telephones:Operator, long distance, get me Jesus on the line.and I can call my rock in the morning, call him late at night ... he put a telephone in my heart, and I can call God any old time.Hallelujah!

Caravaggio has three other paintings with St. Matthew as the subject:

I can't get the three links above the enlarge, but wonder if anyone else senses St. Matthew's releuctance/sense of being harried in the two pictures with just him and the angel? Carravaggio, imo, often seems to grasp that "the call" is not particularly pleasant, peaceful, comfortable or convenient.

Jean --I"m glad you appreciate the old songs, even if you think they're funny. My heart is half Baptist. Not that I don't appreciate Caravaggio. His work is what realism is supposed to be -- true. It seems to me that he was one of the God-haunted that Flannery O'Connor writes about, not that he was in any way naive. On the contrary.

JR writes:"Caravaggio often seems to grasp that the call is not particularly pleasant, peaceful, comfortable or convenient."RI recalls the line from Francis Thompson:'Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside."It is remarkable to me the number of paintings by C. (including the martyrdom of Matthew) that depict himself as a curious/complicit/attracted participant.

Ann, I don't think those songs are funny whatever. I can make an act of contrition, I can still recite the Episcopal confession by heart. But this "confession" that Mahalia (and Elvis!) sang is the one I turn to a lot:If I have wounded any soul today,If I have caused one foot to go astray,If I have walked in my own willful way,Dear Lord, forgive!If I have uttered idle words or vain,If I have turned aside from want or pain,Lest I myself shall suffer through the strain,Dear Lord, forgive!If I have been perverse or hard, or cold,If I have longed for shelter in Thy fold,When Thou hast given me some fort to hold,Dear Lord, forgive!Forgive the sins I have confessed to Thee;Forgive the secret sins I do not see;O guide me, watch over me and my keeper be,Dear Lord, AmenFr. Imbelli, ah, yes, "The Hound of Heaven" is worth reading for all it's Victorian gingerbread language ("fretted to dulcet jars / And silvern chatter the pale ports o the moon. ... With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over"--honestly, "skiey"?)But I like the end: "Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?"I hope that's how it works. I surely and sincerely do.

Jean --Yes, fine hymn. Sorry I misinterpreted your thoughts about the others.

JR quotes:"Is my gloom, after all,Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?And adds:"I hope thats how it works. I surely and sincerely do."RI whispers in the loggia:"Amen."

Why whisper, Fr. Imbelli? Surely such hopes are worthy of being spoken of aloud. And at length. Though I think my time on this here thread is probably up now.

The word "gloom" in the poem quoted, as in JHN's "Lead, Kindly Light", means shade, not depression. Chiaroscuro.

Fr. O'Leary, finally went and looked up Cardinal Newman's hymn. Couldn't "gloom" = shade but also be a metaphor for darkness of the soul? Perhaps not depression, but a sense of being in the dark, wondering where God is?Or perhaps I miss your point?

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