Sixteenth century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is recognized as one of history’s most influential artists. While he’s an icon now, before his works were inspiring paintings of shipwrecks, assassinations, and dogs playing poker, Caravaggio was just an up-and-coming artist taking his shot with The Calling of St. Matthew.
1. 'THE CALLING OF ST. MATTHEW' HAS BEEN ON DISPLAY IN THE SAME PLACE FOR MORE THAN 410 YEARS.
The oil painting was commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it has been proudly exhibited since its completion, probably in 1599 and 1600.
2. IT HANGS BESIDE ITS BROTHERS.
The Calling of St. Matthew was one of three paintings Caravaggio created for the chapel, all of which centered on the apostle. The Inspiration of St. Matthew presents the sain at work on his Gospel, while The Martyrdom of St. Matthew shows his murder at the orders of the king of Ethiopia.
3. CARAVAGGIO WAS THE CHURCH'S SECOND CHOICE FOR THE JOB.
The late Cardinal Matteo Contarelli (for whom the chapel is named) bequeathed funds to deck the place out with tributes to the saint for whom he was named. The gig originally went to popular Mannerist painter Cavaliere d'Arpino (also known as Il Giuseppino or Giuseppe Cesari), but after completing some frescoes on the chapel’s ceiling, Cavaliere realized he was overbooked. He gave up the commission, paving the way for one of Caravaggio's most admired works.
4. THE PAINTING DEPICTS A SCENE FROM MATTHEW'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE.
Before he was called by Jesus to join his apostles, Matthew was a greedy and corrupt tax collector. In The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio depicts the moment written about in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 9, which reads: "Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, 'Follow me,' and Matthew rose and followed Him."
5. IT'S NOT CLEAR WHICH MAN IS ACTUALLY MATTHEW.
Jesus and Peter stand on the painting’s right, the former pointing toward Matthew. But which of the cluster of men on the left is this soon-to-be saint? Some scholars have suggested it's the man hunched over coins, noting that the bearded fellow to his right appears to be pointing his way. However, the most popular interpretation is that this bearded pointer is Matthew, his finger pointed gently to his chest. This theory would explain why the radiant light shines down on his face to show he's chosen by the light of the heavens. Still other scholars believe Caravaggio was purposefully ambiguous about Matthew’s identity to suggest God could call upon any of them.
6. THE PAINTING WAS CARAVAGGIO'S BIG BREAK.
When Cavaliere backed out, Caravaggio's patron Cardinal del Monte recommended the 28 (or 29)-year-old for the coveted job, which was the biggest he had yet received. What Caravaggio came up with rejected the Mannerist style that was all the rage. While his naturalist approach drew some scorn, he was largely met with praise and touted as the head of a new art movement.
7. THIS SERIES PRESENTED SEVERAL MAJOR CHALLENGES FOR CARAVAGGIO.
Forget for a moment the incredible amount of pressure the young artist must have felt in taking on a three-piece commission that would serve as a signature of the chapel. Forget that he was completing it around the time Rome was flooded with tourists celebrating the Holy Year declared by Pope Clement VIII. The Calling of Matthew, the first of the trio he completed, boasted more figures than Caravaggio had ever attempted to capture in one painting. Several of these subjects were grown men, as opposed to the androgynous boys of his previous portraits that had secured him the job. And on top of all that, there was the large scale demanded to fill the Chapel's walls.
8. THE PAINTING IS HUGE.
The Calling of St. Matthew measures 10.5 feet by 11 feet!
9. CARAVAGGIO USED ANACHRONISM TO MAKE THE CALLING OF ST. MATTHEW MORE ACCESSIBLE.
Rather than dressing the painting’s figures in the clothes of period he was depicting, Caravaggio utilized contemporary fashion of the late 16th century to better communicate the scene to his audience. The men's finery combined with the way they hover like vultures over the coins and meet in the dark room displays their apparent wickedness. All of these elements make Jesus's choice and Matthew's conversion all the more dramatic.
10. HE MAY HAVE GOTTEN SOME HELP FROM CAMERA OBSCURA.
An exhibit in 2011 in Rome's Palazzo Venezia explored the theory that Caravaggio used the optical device to project an image onto the canvas to allow him to trace out his piece. It's speculated that this technique explains why the maybe-Matthew is pointing with his left hand—the projected image would have been reversed.
11. IT CONTAINS A HANDY ALLUSION TO THE CREATION OF MAN.
Having long worked in Rome, Caravaggio would have no doubt been familiar with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpiece, completed in the early 16th century. Art historians have suggested that the position of Jesus's fingers in The Calling of St. Matthew mimic those of Adam in The Creation of Man as part of a tradition of "seeing Christ as a second Adam." This interpretation connects the pieces as bookends, with Adam being the reason mankind needed saving by Christ.
12. HANS HOLBEIN MAY HAVE BEEN ANOTHER INSPIRATION.
Art historians have noted a similarity in the staging of Caravaggio's tax collectors in The Calling of St. Matthew and the gamblers found in the woodcarving prints of the German artist. In The Gambler (1545), one man is so preoccupied by counting his ill-gotten gains he doesn't notice that death and the devil have come to claim one of his friends. It has been suggested Caravaggio's painting was a reversal, showing one greedy tax collector so focused on his money he doesn't notice the arrival of Jesus.
13. JESUS'S FEET SUGGEST HE'S ALL BUSINESS.
If you look closely, you'll notice that while Jesus's torso and head are pointed in toward the room, his feet point right, toward the suggested door. Jesus is not waiting for Matthew. The man has been chosen, and the position of Christ's feet show it's time to go.
14. CARAVAGGIO WAS A SINNER PAINTING SAINTS.
When he wasn't creating breathtaking Christian art like The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio was up to no good. A belligerent drunk, his rap sheet included brawls and one incident where he chucked an earthenware dish at a waiter for not knowing how his artichokes should be cooked. Church officials forgave Caravaggio for these mistakes, though, and continued to commission his work. After murdering a man, the artist was sentenced to death and fled Rome, eventually joining the Knights of Malta to try and get a papal pardon—but that ended when he got in a fight with another knight. Eventually, a cardinal decided to intervene and get a pardon for Caravaggio. But a fever got to him before the pardon did: The artist died in 1610, at age 38, but his legacy has lived on for centuries.
15. THE POPE CALLS THE PAINTING A MUST-SEE.
The painting scored headlines in early 2015 when Pope Francis declared during a visit at the University of Santo Tomas, "If you have time, go see the picture that Caravaggio painted of this scene." He went on to suggest the centuries-old piece is about how God gives second chances, adding, "The important thing is to let yourselves be loved by him.”