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Rome, Caravaggio, St Matthew and money

Today I saw one of the most beautiful and profound paintings I have ever had the privilege to behold. It is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew (1602), in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Even if we had not travelled here to participate in one of the wonderfully interdisciplinary conferences organised by the International Journal of the Arts and the Sciences (enabling one to discover much more than the work of like-minded colleagues from all the corners of the world), this alone would have made the trip worthwhile, because no reproduction in art-historical volumes (and I have seen many) could capture what makes this painting so exceptional. Succinctly put, it is much more than a representation of a kind of “creation” of Christian import — it functions on different levels of meaning, as I shall argue below.

So what is so special about this painting (one of three Garavaggios in this church)? First, to someone who has the interest in art that I have — because, in a nutshell, a noteworthy artwork “preserves a world of meaning” in itself, which viewers may discover or unlock centuries after its provenance — this painting is one of the best examples of preserving such a world, AND of surpassing it to resonate with other worlds or eras. Similar to Vermeer and Rembrandt — both masters of painting as a mediation of the experience of light — Caravaggio, the “bad boy” of the Italian Baroque, used painting to awaken viewers to the visual miracle of light, and concomitantly to its spiritual and existential significance.

In The Calling of St Matthew the light (clearly distinguishable from the darker corners of the interior space) falls from the right, where Jesus has just entered the room, to the left, where Matthew, the wealthy tax collector, is counting money on a table, assisted by several individuals who are probably in his employ. This directionality of the light is metaphorically important — from the right, where Christ is extending his hand (parallel to that of Peter, below his own), to the left, where a clearly perplexed Matthew repeats the gesture, interrogatively pointing at himself, the light travels in a palpably illuminating manner, charting its path of spiritual auspiciousness, and connecting ontologically diverse domains, notably those of the economic (financial) and the spiritual, respectively.

One cannot overlook the “intertextual” element in this scene of portentous hand gestures. They imply a creative act on Jesus’ part, which makes of the space separating Matthew from Christ (and Peter, who here represents the mediating function of the church) a space of creation analogous to the creatively galvanising space between the hands of God the creator, and Adam the creature, in Michelangelo Buonarotti’s earlier Sistine Chapel ceiling painting (which would have been familiar to Caravaggio). One might say that the Caravaggio instantiates a “second creation”, where Matthew, a wealthy man of the world, immersed in the luxury and financial security that such wealth brings, is “re-created” through the fleeting creative aperture represented by Christ’s hand-gesture — an ephemeral opening-up of the possibility of exchanging material abundance (exemplified in the rich apparel of Matthew and those surrounding him, and in the coins on the table and in Matthew’s hat), for material poverty, probable hardship, and economic insecurity (embodied here by Peter’s, and, it seems, Jesus’, bare feet and simple garb), but simultaneously, for spiritual “abundance”. Emphasising this, the panes of the window, between and slightly above Jesus and Matthew, are separated by a cross that adumbrates Christ’s future suffering (in Christian terms, on behalf of humanity, who is thus redeemed).

The greatness of this painting is not restricted to its religion-specific meaning, however profoundly this may be instantiated here. It surpasses the sphere of Christianity in a wide-reaching metaphorical manner, suggested by the iconographic contrast between Matthew and his followers, on the one hand, and Jesus and Peter, on the other, as well as by the implications of the “creative gestures” (primarily, but not only, Christ’s) referred to earlier. As many commentators have pointed out, the former group is dressed in the Italian fashion of the Baroque, while the latter appear in apparel typical of the time of Christ. Hence, we have here two kinds of creation which blend together — one in and across space, as it were, and one in and across time. More accurately, the contrast in time(s) (centuries apart), denoted by the time-indices of the clothes, adds an important dimension to the meaning of the creative arc, executed in the space between (principally) the Messiah’s hand and Matthew’s, inquiringly gesturing towards himself.

The implication is twofold: on the one hand it suggests crossing the temporal divide between 16th/17th-century (potential) Christians (and beyond that, all Christians) and Christ himself, but on the other it also suggests a more universal bridging of a divide that has become especially acute in our own time, namely that between the rich and … who? The poor? Most conspicuously, yes. But I would argue that, understood in this way,this divide denotes the relevant chasm in exclusively economic-material terms, and to my mind this is not the most significant divide in question. What Jesus’ gesture towards Matthew represents on a universal metaphorical level — to be sure, instantiated differently in every culture — is something more important, captured powerfully by the implication of a possible qualitative leap on Matthew’s part, should he rise to the occasion of his “calling”, namely the possibility on the part of every person living in this time of conspicuous consumption, of making a similar qualitative leap from crass materialism to a discovery of “meaning” that vastly surpasses it.

For some this “meaning” would be religious in nature, for others it would be more broadly “spiritual”, for yet others (myself included) it would simply be living a life that is immune to the temptations of capital, beyond the greedy grasp of consumerism as embodied in the shallow iconography of advertising and branding, and enjoying the qualitative diversity of a world that no consumerism can touch, even if one inescapably lives in its midst. This is probably why it is so refreshing to examine an iconography which embodies, even for a non-religious person like myself, something vastly more appealing than the emptiness of capitalism here in Rome, although the iconography of Emporio Armani, etc., is everywhere juxtaposed with it. Somehow I get the impression that the people of Caravaggio’s time, although surrounded by horrors peculiar to it (such as the religious wars), had access to a vocabulary that was better able to capture what life-fulfilment means than that generally available to people living today.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Prof. Joe Manyoni Prof. Joe Manyoni 7 November 2011

    Thank you so much, Prof. Olivier, for this enthralling artistic analysis and appreciation of one of the beautiful works of this Renaissance great master. I would also have been interested to see your reaction to the cognate but contrasting depiction of his “The Martydom of St Matthew”

    The article is suffused with enthusiastic appreciation and respect for the awesome capacity of this painter’s powerful graphic imaginative depiction of the subject of his creation. I think you’ve captured beautifully the technical nuances of his unusual craftsmanship. I recently had the good fortune to visit an exhibition of some of his famous paintings [here in Canada] including the humourous “The Cardsharps” and “The Gypsy Fortune Teller”, and I was equally enthralled.

    In my view, all the ‘decapitation’ scenes are metaphors reminiscent of contemporary violent reactions to any contrary political and religious opinions. While the “Beheading of St John the Baptist” et al. may appear guesome, the depiction is an imposing artistic rendition of the scene of immolation unmitigated by popular social sensetivites. Caravaggio’s artistic style was a truly bold [rebellious even] departure from the Renaissance tradition of classical idealization; instead he opted for reducing even the devine to human dimensions.
    It is always a pleasure to read your well considered and scholarly views on various issues.

    Prof. Joe Manyoni
    Ottawa, Canada

  2. isabella van der westhuizen isabella van der westhuizen 7 November 2011

    I too have visited and seen this Caravaggio. I too was enraptured. How you can look at it and not be spiritually moved is beyond me. Attempting to separate Carravagio from his profound spiritual searching is beyond me. The man was a sinner who eventually died in a vicious but petty fight yet his entire body of work is one of a human being searching for God’s forgiveness and healing. I am sorry but your secularism is anaemic and impoverished.

  3. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 7 November 2011

    It’s paradoxical to claim that Rome is a centre of capitalism when the Pope invented imperialism. A shift towards capitalism was the salvation that freed most of the world from the age of empires, such as the Roman Empire and the British Empire much later.

    It is however true that the people of Caravaggio’s time were equipped with more insight. This is what lead to the Renaissance and eventually to the Enlightenment, with its shift towards qualitative reckoning of the value of individual rights – and its unavoidable shift towards economic freedom too.

  4. peter peter 7 November 2011

    Not only eloquent but an art critic as well! How can one be so talented? Why all the brackets though? Just curious.

  5. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 7 November 2011

    Caravaggio was a great realist and a dramatist – his work still strikes as amazingly modern -photographic (Mel Gibson drew on him for his lighting of ‘Passion of the Christ’).

    C’s work in San Luigi created a sensation and the commissions rolled in from the Church and from noblemen who were sufficiently self assured to take his more lurid work as it came, unsanitised. He was a violent man – who knows what personal demons tormented him.

    As Bert has often pointed out in his columns, meaning resides as much in the viewer or hearer as in the ‘speaking’ subject. What strikes me most about this dramatic painting is its psychology, the intense focus on the individual – ‘Who, me?’ In just a few years Descartes would assure the world that because we think, we are.

  6. Bert Bert 8 November 2011

    Prof. Manyoni – Thank you for your illuminating elaboration on my piece. Indeed, at a time when idealization was still dominant in art, Caravaggio introduced realism – you will know about the outrage that greeted his depiction of the disciples with dirty feet! About the Martyrdom of St Matthew, which hangs opposite the Calling (discussed above), It did not move me as powerfully as the latter painting, although it is equally a masterpiece. What struck me there was the painter’s play with the forces of ‘gravity’ and of ‘lightness’, as witnessed in the prostrate figure of St Matthew, as well as the way in which bystanders are ‘falling’ or scattering from the scene of the ‘execution’. This contrasts sharply with Caravaggio’s use of a feather being extended by the angel to the dying St Matthew – the feather being a symbol of lightness, situated right above the dying saint, suggesting the countervailing tension between his heavy, earthly body, and the lightness of his soul, at the moment when the latter is transported heavenward, as it were, by the angel. Truly powerful art, and as you say, rendered without any idealization by the artist.
    Isabella – I find it ironic that you refer to my stance as ‘anaemic’, when it is really Christian metaphysics that desrves that description. Have you forgotten about the bloodless manner in which the hereafter is described in the New Testament? I can assure you that my experience of the world not anaemic – it is richly intellectual…

  7. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 8 November 2011

    Caravaggio’s themes were determined by those with money for commissions, which in his time was an aristocracy coupled with the Catholic church.

    One need not be aware of the religious politics of the time (or be religious at all) to appreciate his groundbreaking foreshortening technique or his mastery of chiriasciro.

    To me, this is a testament of a great artist: Managing to create masterpieces that do not need a specific context in order to be appreciated. This is one problem with Sizek and other rock star philosophers in the Marxist tradition: Marxism has failed in practice (even in his native Slovenia), so in order to appear relevant, they have to move the goalposts by inventing a new context for their flawed philosophies that fail to capture domains of reality.

    Caravaggio was in a similar boat: The Catholic church at the time enjoyed competition from the Protestant Reformation. In order to maintain status quo, the Catholic church used stellar artists such as Caravaggio to produce striking propaganda images used to stir anti-Protestant sentiment (see Council of Trent).

    Caravaggio’s religious themes are a product of the Catholic attempt at moving goalposts at the time. Caravaggio was a pawn in the greater game and didn’t lead a particularly pious or religious life. He moved to where he could find money for his artworks or where his reputation as a brawler hasn’t damaged the market…

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