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Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew

Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew

Thesis Statement

The subject traditionally was comprised either inside or out; occasionally Saint Matthew is shown interior a building, with Christ out-of-doors (following the Biblical text) summoning him through a window.


Caravaggio represented the happening as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The sequence of actions before and after this instant can be easily and convincingly re-created. The tax-gatherer Levi (Saint Matthew's name before he became the apostle) was seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day's proceeds, the assembly lighted from a source at the top right of the painting.

The two figures on the left, drawn from from a 1545 Hans Holbein publish representing gamblers unaware of the appearance of Death, are so worried with counting the cash that they manage not even observe Christ's arrival; symbolically their inattention to Christ deprives them of the opening he offers for eternal life, and condemns them to death. The two boys in the center manage respond, the junior one drawing back against Levi as if seeking his defence, the swaggering older one, who is armed, leaning forward a little menacingly. Saint Peter gestures solidly with his hand to calm his potential resistance.


The dramatic issue of the image is that for this instant, no one does anything. Christ's appearance is so unforeseen and his gesture so commanding as to suspend action for a shocked instant, before reaction can take place. In another second, Levi will rise up and pursue Christ--in fact, Christ's feet are already turned as if to leave the room. The particular power of the image is in this cessation of action. It utilizes the fundamentally static intermediate of painting to express characteristic human indecision after a challenge or command and before reaction.


Early life

Caravaggio was the child of Fermo Merisi, steward and architect of the Marquis of Caravaggio. Orphaned at age 11, Caravaggio was apprenticed in the same year to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan.

At some time between 1588 and 1592, Caravaggio went to Rome. He was already in possession of the fundamental technical skills of painting and had acquired, with characteristic eagerness, a methodical understanding of the approach of the Lombard and Venetian painters, who, opposed to idealized Florentine painting, had evolved a style that was nearer to representing nature and events. Caravaggio reached in Rome and resolved into the cosmopolitan society of ...
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