To understand the greatness of this painting one first must understand the context in which it was created. In spite of the slow death of the Renaissance in this period, artists were still in high demand. This was because the city of Rome, which had for a century seen the influences of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, was continuing to grow and build. Palaces were being erected all over the city, in a culture in which it was simply unthinkable to leave one’s walls bare. However, despite the demand for great tapestries and works, Rome had in fact lost its genius. Rather than innovating, Roman artists were merely reproducing the famous murals of the Vatican created years previously. This changed when a young man known as Caravaggio rushed to the city on sevens hills, and shocked the world into what is arguably the most important esthetical revolution in history; Clair-Obscure.
The Calling of Saint Matthew, a painting that took time to be accepted due the character and history of Caravaggio, is the finest depiction of the humanity of Christ. It depicts the miracle of Jesus Christ, (accompanied by Peter) designating Matthew to follow him. However, notice how unspectacular this scene appears to be despite its depiction of such a spectacular event. It is as if the populace of the tavern is not aware of the events happening around them! A man is far to busy counting his day’s pay closely surveyed by an elder above his shoulder. Moreover, both children simply turn as Jesus and Peter enter but only spare a slight grin. The only characters aware of the event happening are, as we can see by their focused stare into each other’s eyes, Christ and Matthew. It is as if the people of this scene are unaware that the Messiah had just entered.
However, one must remember that in reality, this is probably how the miracle occurred… Jesus was not accompanied by a marching band of whistles and trumpets. Therefore, through this painting, Caravaggio let’s us comprehend the true reality of the miraculous – that it may escape one’s notice. Indeed, many people do not actually know which character represents Christ in the painting. Just as the children in the painting hide Matthew, so Peter hides Jesus. Moreover, it is not Jesus but Matthew upon whom the light shines and defines; a light which in the painting appears out of nowhere. But do take a moment to admire the beauty, sacrality and to a certain extent the humanity of Christ’s face.
In this way, Caravaggio was one of the few painters that understood the humanity of Christ. Moreover, he was also the creator of one of the most beautiful representations of Christ. However, Caravaggio was also a painter who at a very young age fell into both debauchery and even murder, and thus his beautiful appreciation of the Christ figure is to some extent a paradox. Neverthless, the influence that his few works will have on the art of the 17th century was so great that the century can be defined as Caravagism. Everywhere from Spain to France to the Netherlands an admirative school emerges from Caravaggio’s work. The most extraordinary example of these inspirational works being displayed here – The Calling of Saint Matthew.