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.