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Which is Matthew?

Caravaggio - The Calling of St. Matthew

Here is an opinion that will surprise:

"Many art historians identify Matthew with the bearded personage who with his hand seems to be pointing to himself, looking at Jesus. But more careful recent analysis of the painting has determined that this is one of the moneylenders -- with his other hand, he is giving money to one who is taking it -- and that his gesture is one of scandal, directed at the young man next to him. As if he were saying, 'Do you really mean him, the sinner, the unclean?'

A fuller explanation is here.

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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Bob: You beat me to it! Do you suppose that Sara Magister is a relative?

Anyone else have a sense of "deja vu all over again" (thanks, Yogi B., for that indelible quote) that this painting has been the topic of an earlier dotCommonweal discussion? A few clicks of the mouse revealed that Fr. Imbelli had included the painting in his 7/2/10 post titled "Painting Theology." reading through all the comments to the earlier post, I noticed that just about everyone (including me) assumed that Matthew is the bearded man pointing to himself. No one identified the hunched over figure to the far left as Matthew, and some commenters (including me) regarded him as little more than a scene-filling greedy young man counting his money.I like the new interpretation about who is Matthew in the picture. Upon reflection, the analysis seems correct to me both artistically and scripturally, and as the linked story by Sandro Magister notes, it would be so "caravaggesque" of this wonderful master painter to keep us guessing down the centuries.

Joe,Sara, an art historian, is Sandro's daughter.William,Being a great fan of Yogi, I try to keep his legacy alive!I also like the "new interpretation." As you suggest, Caravaggio has a way of confounding pious expectations: his Death of the Virgin and the Madonna dei Pellegrini being but two examples.I was always a bit puzzled that the older bearded man did not seem to be pointing to himself. It now seems likely that he is pointing to the young man to his right who, when one sees a larger reproduction of the painting, is older than the two youngsters in the foreground.On another note, on a recent trip to Rome, I saw the newly restored Christ Raising Lazarus (which is not easily seen because it is in Messina). It was exhibited by itself in a large room. The effect was overwhelming.

This probably reveals more about me than prudent but given this new interpretation (which just seems to feel right) when I now look at the picture it reminds me of a poker game. Matthew has just gone all-in on a bluff, and he's been "called" by Jesus. Not expecting to be called, all he can do is look down at his chips, knowing they soon won't be his, hoping against hope that the hand he's been dealt will miraculously change. Does anyone happen to know if Caravaggio played poker?

Mark,If you go to google images and enter: Caravaggio, "Cardsharps," you'll recognize the players.

I get so much out of these kinds of discussions, and I wish there were more posts like this. Certainly, I wish there were more emphasis placed on religious art at the local or even diocesan level. The retreats at the diocesan center are largely pretty prosaic and of the self-help variety ("Mom's Retreat: Finding Time for God Amidst the Diapers").I keep wishing for something more contemplative--and wonder what the Spirit might suggest if I were to spend a day with three or four paintings like this and somebody who could 'splain them to me.I also love Mark P's poker metaphor. How many of us feel we've "cashed out," only to realize that once that distraction is gone, we are faced with a more urgent and deeper sense of purpose in life? Well, not me, not yet. I'm not good at listening or obeying, so I may have squandered those moments. But I think these "epiphany" paintings of Caravaggio's are a promise that even the worst of us can have that kind of experience.

Jean,from your previous comments and suggestions regarding paintings, I think you do a pretty good job 'splaining stuff. But your comment encourages me because I'm on sabbatical this coming year and I hope to write a short book that will have four works of art that will form the substance of the book, my words seeking only to "exegete" a bit those "texts."

Exciting!For the first communion of my niece last month I gave her a book of famous paintings of scenes of the bible. Each chapter has first a photo of some closeup of a painting, then comments about the photo, then a photo of the entire painting and a reading of the corresponding passage of the bible.I had a lovely time with it. I particularly liked the order: we examine the painting first, so that by the time we get to the text, the structure which we saw in the art comes out in the writing in an obvious way, in words that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Instead of the text telling us what to look for in the art, it is the art that tells us what to look for in the text. It gives us a fresh appreciation of the reading.My niece, on the other hand, prefers watching TV.

Ha, Claire! Isn't that the way with kids? You buy them something and end up getting more out of it than they do. Fr. Imbelli, now that's what I'm talking about! Four paintings with commentary would be perfect, and would not give someone sensory overload. I used to enjoy the art essays in the back of "Magnificat." Maybe Commonweal needs a "Last Look" column that takes on a work of art in addition to its "Last Word" column? There have been some very nice feature stories about visual art, but a weekly jolt would be nice.

Claire,Is the book in English or French? If English, could you give the reference?Jean,"Last Look" -- I hope the editors take notice! (Though there have been some wonderful covers with art works, as I recall.)

Merci, Claire; I'd enjoy seeing the "Jesus" book in the series and the paintings chosen.

There is a fine Italian work on Gospel episodes and figures which has now been translated and published as Gospel Figures in Art (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005). It goes from start to finish and illustrates figures and events with great works of art, with some serious work at interpreting the paintings.

This is a bit off-topic, but the St. John's Bible site has a nice little video that shows how the book was made. And there is also info on the site about the illuminated art that was contributed to the Bible.'ve used this site with my mass communication seminar students sometimes. In fact, we'll be using it next week. There's a nice little video to go with.

The TV program which Sandro Magister mentions in his piece -- in which the Sunday Gospel is first illustrated by works of art, then commented upon by Pope Benedict, and concluding with some musical selections from chant or polyphony -- is, in my opinion, a very promising and imaginative approach to evangelization and catechesis. The few times I was able to watch it, the art commentary was done by Msgr. Timothy Verdon who is a leader in Italy for the use of art in catechesis. He has some splendid volumes, but alas I don't think they've been translated. And the cost of reproducing the art works in the States might be prohibitive. Fine illustrated volumes is something the Italians do right!

Fine illustrated volumes is something the Italians do right!I hope you are able to write the book you have in mind, I would much like to read it if you do. I think including quality (and non-meager!) illustrations are essential. Maybe you can find an Italian publisher? Few things would please me more than saying, Did you check out the centerfold in Fr. Imbellis new book?

Idle Speculations is a site that I've enjoyed - it's been around since 2006, so by now it has a multitude of images with informative commentaries and extensive links to other sites featuring Catholic art.

Thank you, Patrick Malloy. I just took a look, and will be sure to return often.

I'm sorry -- Patrick Molloy.

Patrick,Indeed, thank you for the link. I don't know if Michelangelo's "Il Sogno" had been posted when you called attention to the site. The commentary on the drawing is quite good and could be substantiated by reference to any number of tyrants gross and petty.I wonder, however, if Dante's dreams in "Purgatorio" are somewhere in the background, given Michelangelo's passion for Dante.

Nice site, but I got distracted playing with the hamster in the right-hand bar.

Patrick M. -- Yes, thanks a bunch!Fr. Imbelli -- when I win a $1B lottery and start a Catholic TV channel, this is the sort of thing I think it could do -- with music, like the Italian one. I even wonder whether a TV series could be done using just color reproductions of the works. That might not be financially prohibitive. I've seen a couple of episode's of Fr. Barron's "Catholicism" series, which is OK, but the commentary is wea. It takes a real scholar, I think, to bring out the meanings in a great work.P. S. Why hasn't Michelangelo been declared at least Venerable? Surely his piety was extraordinary!

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