If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew and Inspiration of St. Matthew

Caravaggio's "Calling of Saint Matthew" captures a powerful moment of spiritual awakening. Set in a gritty, realistic environment, Christ points to Matthew, a tax collector, inviting him to follow. The painting highlights the divine entering everyday life, emphasizing the transformative power of faith and making spirituality accessible to all. Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew and Inspiration of St. Matthew, oil on canvas, c. 1599-1600 (Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. David Drogin: We're looking at a really wonderful Caravaggio. This is a painting of the Calling of Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Dr. Beth Harris: In the Contarelli Chapel. David: That's right, in the larger church. Beth: And it's in a chapel with two other paintings by Caravaggio all about Matthew. David: So, Matthew was one of Christ's disciples. So, which one is he here? Beth: It's a little hard to find him here, actually. David: It's a complicated group of figures here. Beth: It's very complicated. I love the subject. Christ is walking in on the right. David: Which one is Christ? There are two figures on the right. Beth: Yeah, I think Saint Peter is in front of Christ on the right. David: He's the sort of heavy, powerful ... Beth: Rough looking guy. David: Yeah, with the short, cropped hair. Beth: And behind him, half obscured, is facing us, is Christ with his arm outstretched. David: He looks much more noble, younger, more delicate actually. Beth: And there's a kind of delicacy to his gestures that remove him, I think, from the regular world that the other figures seem to occupy as he seems to point over and Matthew is the one who is pointing to himself in disbelief. David: He's the older figure with the large beard. Beth: With a black hat. David: Yes, and a dark tunic. Beth: And I think, if I remember correctly, the story is that Matthew is a tax collector and he's sitting with his fellow tax collectors. Christ walks in and sees Matthew and basically says, "You, come with me." David: And there's this moment of conversion. This is this incredible moment of spiritual awakening. Beth: Right, which is a very typical subject in baroque art. David: So, this notion of transformation. Beth: At this moment that Christ says, "Hey you, you're coming with me." Matthew points to himself. "Me?" David: "You can't possibly mean me." Beth: Right. "I'm a tax collector." David: Well, there's all kinds of negative implications, it's not just that he's working for the IRS for instance, right? Beth: A little bit more shady even of an era. David: It's much more shady. I mean, look at the environment they're in. This is so important for Caravaggio. He's not showing Christ in Heaven. He's not showing Christ in an elevated, plasticized environment. He's in this, what looks like the back room of a tavern or a bar. Beth: Yes. David: And when we look at it, it looks like he's surrounded by younger men who are counting money. Beth: Yeah, they're leaning over, sort of, greedily, the figure especially on the left, counting money. David: And they're armed. They've got swords. They're dressed in very fancy clothes. Beth: Yeah, you sort of imagine one of them whipping out their swords any second and getting into a bar room brawl, almost. David: That's right, but there's this real sense that this money is not gotten legally. I mean, imagine if you walked into a bar now and you walked into the back room and there were very overly dressed, ostentatiously dressed young men with guns counting money. (laughing) Would that be an environment you'd want to be in? Beth: I think that's what makes this moment of conversion all the more wonderful. David: But how potent this must have been when this painting is made in 1599, 1600. When Christ is being shown in really this much more contemporary environment and all of this is made real. Beth: Very real. The figures are so removed from the idealized beauty of the high Renaissance. David: It must have been challenging, a little scary, but really exciting. Beth: When Caravaggio brings the spiritual down to everyday level that we can all totally relate to instead of that distance that was there in the high Renaissance. David: Which was really interesting. If you think that, you know, these are paintings in Rome with all the pomp and ceremony of Rome and Caravaggio is giving such a fresh ... Beth: I know, it's wonderful isn't it? David: It's really fabulous, isn't it? Beth: I know. The thing that I always think about with this painting when I try to relate it to living in the 21st century, I imagine sometimes, my own version of a greedy moment. Maybe it's the holidays and I'm supposed to be shopping for friends and family and instead I'm buying something for myself and I'm getting my credit card out. Try to imagine Christ walking in the door of Banana Republic and saying, "You. I've chosen you." David: So out of context. Look at the way that Caravaggio is handling light here. Because it's not just Christ walking in. He is the embodiment of a kind of spiritual force in that, as he points to Matthew and your eye can go from his glance, across his hand to Matthew's finger ... Beth: Following that diagonal line. David: ... of the sunlight. It seems to be pouring in, maybe a doorway that they've opened, who knows what. Beth: And it's as though that point of Christ almost, there sends this piercing rays to Matthew that gets to him, but also, in a way interrupts this moment of reality in the tavern so that he is, sort of, suspended between this moment of calling and transformation and conversion, but also this is so immersed in his reality, of course, that's also a very baroque characteristic of this caught, extreme moment of time and also what's very baroque about it that I appreciate this way that the divine has entered everyday life. David: Yeah, absolutely. Beth: We see that in Saint Teresa and in so many other baroque paintings. David: In a sense, the baroque is taking these intensely spiritual forms that have come out of the Renaissance, maintaining the high naturalism and really building on the high naturalism of the Renaissance, but putting it in an environment where, as you said earlier, it is completely accessible and very, very real and immediate. Beth: I know. Almost sometimes, to me, not just real and immediate, but almost pedestrian and dirty. David: Yeah. Beth: If you look at the bare feet of Peter, of Christ, there's something gritty about Caravaggio's realism. David: Look at the window. It seems as if those panes have been covered Beth: The soot. The walls look dirty and grimy. This is not an ideal environment at all. I have one thing that's always been, I thought, very curious. If you look at Christ's hand, there's a lot of attention that's compositionally on that hand, right under the cross at the window and that slight bend of the wrist. It is the hand that Michael Angelo had painted, Beth: Adam. David: And here, in an interesting kind of reversal. I mean, there has been a tradition, of course, of seeing ... Beth: Christ as the second Adam. David: That's right. Beth: Adam who causes the fall of mankind and Christ who redeems mankind. David: So, in a sense, bookends on this story. Beth: And this moment of redemption, personal redemption for Matthew. David: Just as Adam was created, in a sense, Matthew was recreated. (piano playing)