Cardinal Mattheiu Cointrel was a French Cardinal, who had purchased a side chapel in the Church of San Luigi del Francese (St. Louis of the French), where a series of paintings and frescoes dedicated to St. Matthew were to be painted in his honor after his death. This Church, dedicated to St. Louis IX, was the focal point for Frenchmen living in Rome during the middle ages, and even today still has French speaking shops nearby. In point of fact, today it is still considered French territory.
As a side note, there is a pillar in the Church dedicated to the French soldiers who died while liberating Rome from Garibaldi in 1848.
Nevertheless, in 1599, Cointrel’s will had not been effected, in spite of the large sum of money left for the chapel that would bear his name (Italianized to Contarelli). After several artists had failed to produce work laid out in the terms of the will, the commission was won by an obscure Lombard painter with a short fuse, who was known as a client of Cardinal Maria del Monte, but had only recently risen from an obscure existence churning out portraits of heads for a Groat a piece, namely Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. If you want to get an idea of what a Groat was worth, we can look to Austria just prior to the introduction of the Euro, where they had “Groschen”, (which comes from the same linguistic root as a Groat), which was a plastic coinage that was more or less worthless. A Groat was about the same.
Now, however, with the unlikely award of the commission for the Contarelli chapel he would be projected into fame. Yet, Caravaggio would have to overcome significant obstacles to complete the commission. The difficulty for Caravaggio, the same difficulty which had afflicted more seasoned painters who had previously been tapped for this project, such as Giralomo Muzziano, is that the commission called for a historical painting reviving the intense historical drama of Raphael. Idealized saints, a historic holy land scene, angels on clouds, detailed preparatory drawings, careful study and imitation of anatomy, and many other things. For Caravaggio, who had taken up the persona of an artistic realism which celebrated the filthy muck of life, and made gods into men instead of men into gods, this was a huge challenge. But it is not only because he was at war with tradition, as some suggest. (For example, Simon Schama in his documentary series “The Power of Art”, suggests Caravaggio had no interest in producing such things). The way Caravaggio did things tended to precluded this, but both the contemporary evidence and the work he produced shows he was not above painting what is above, it is more about his particular abilities. He didn’t draw, he painted what he saw.
For instance, we’ll look at a few key early paintings.
The Cardsharps is a great example of his style. As in all of Caravaggio’s paintings, x-rays have shown there are no pencil lines, and no conceptual drawings have ever been found. He looked and painted. What he gives us, is not merely a photograph by paint, he uses the brush to create distinctions, add drama, and make a point. The cardsharps is celebrated as poor uninitiated noblemam, about to be ripped off by Mr. Cardsharp and his pal. Yet there is a level of humor in this that goes beyond cards. A cheat like this would be rather obvious, and soon to be noticed. No one actually carries things out in this exact manner. It is celebrating instead, the world that Caravaggio lived with every day, being a poor Lombard painter with not too many prospects in a city that can break you in a second.
Moreover, we can see it again here with the so-called “sick-Bacchus”. Its actually a self-portrait of the painter, painted when he was younger, so probably would have been done in a mirror. He gives us Bacchus, the god of wine, song, binges, youth and beauty. What he does is a complete contravention to the tradition, instead of taking a man and making him look like a god in paint, Caravaggio has taken a god and made him more like a man. Apart from looking like he is in need of Jeeves to come in after a long night of drinking, he looks deathly ill. His fingernails are dirty, and the grapes are rotten. The immortality of youth is drained, even inverted, into the mortality of disease. This is not a vision of paradise, but of reality, the reality which everyone he knows laboring away in the Ataccio, Rome’s embarrassing and dirty underbelly, deals with every day. This is the painting which caught the eye of Cardinal del Monte, and led him to invite Caravaggio to become part of his retinue. Yet, Caravaggio’s experience was in small paintings, with one model in a small space, not to large epic scenes with life-sized figures. His commission required him to paint on the Martyrdom of Matthew on the east side, and the Conversion of St. Matthew on the west side of the chapel. He began on the east side first, but, when it came to the idealized holy lands and the like of St. Matthew’s martyrdom, Caravaggio ran into quite the headache.
X-rays of the Martyrdom of St. Matthew clearly show Caravaggio attempted another sort of painting altogether, attempting to replicate the great scenes of Raphael. There is a text called the “Golden Legend“, a medieval lives of the saints, with stories, some apocryphal, some accurate, that had inspired christians for hundreds of years. Therein, it is told that St. Matthew converted a noble maiden in Ethiopia, Iphigeina, who was betrothed to the king, but now decided to live her life for Christ. In revenge the king ordered Matthew to be killed while he was saying Mass. According to Helen Langdon, Caravaggio’s original:
…began with a a composition in which the figures are comparatively small, occupying the foreground plane in the lower part of the canvas, and in which the action takes place in a grandiose setting of elaborate Renaissance architecture. At first the executioner stood in the center, sword raised, before an upright St. Matthew; to the right stood a nude recording angel, holding the Gospel, and pointing to heaven; in the foreground a soldier, seen from the back, divided the composition in two with the sharpness of a pilaster.” (Langdon, Caravaggio, A Life, pg. 172)
Since this is not what he produced for the chapel, we can only conclude that this didn’t work for him, or that, Caravaggio realized that what he was good at was not the work and style of the Renaissance, but something uniquely his own, and as a consequence, he needed to turn do something different to do it well. It is at this point that he turned to the other side of the wall, the conversion of St. Matthew. There, the light began to flicker.
The Conversion of St. Matthew
What captures Caravaggio’s imagination here, is the circumstances of St. Matthew’s life. It is about a sinner, in a den of sin (a counting house, Telonium in the vulgate), and the subject (Matthew) is a shady dealer. Caravaggio is not just a thug who goes about at night with a sword and dagger abusing rivals, or having carnal relations with his more attractive female models. He is also very sophisticated, in spite of his low birth, and knew Latin at least well enough to read St. Bonaventure’s life of St. Francis (shown in his various works on the saint), the Golden Legend (which wasn’t translated into Italian at that time), and many works of classical literature. You would have to, to be in Cardinal Del Monte’s retinue, in the company of other painters, poets, musicians, philosophers, all renaissance men, all making up a renaissance court focused on the arts. We’ll see this especially with the martyrdom of St. Matthew.
The genius here, the insight that seems so completely counter-intuitive, is that Caravaggio has given us less of Christ, and more of St. Matthew. It is a curious blend, on the one hand Matthew the sinner is depicted in some shady back alley tavern in Rome conducting his business, with those around him dressed as contemporaries (even reusing figures from the Cardsharps), but Christ and
St. Peter are dressed in biblical clothing. The light shines from above and behind Christ, like the light of the Holy Ghost, and Matthew’s reaction says everything without words: “Chi, Io?” (who me?) his finger cries out, pointing in stunned astonishment to himself. What, a holy prophet like you wants a lowly creature like me? No saints for this job. At least not yet.
Notice the two fellows to St. Matthew’s right, they do not even look up. On the one hand, we have the man with glasses. The light is right on him, but he doesn’t even notice. The device of the glasses illustrates here is that he is spiritually shortsighted, so much so that he cannot see the purity of the light. Then you have the man counting the money. He does not look up either, because the love of money is the root of all evil, and this man, attached as he is to his money, is so rooted in the world, he cannot look up at the light. There is an exaggeration of his posture, and it is not an accident. He is bowed down as if weighed down by a chain, and the vehicle of the light calls us back to Plato’s notion of the cave, wherein all humanity is chained and cannot escape, and a fire in the background makes shadows on the wall, which people think are real, but are not. The real light they can’t see, and when the philosopher tries to tell them, they do not believe him.
Then let’s look at two details about Christ that Caravaggio has included here. Firstly we see Christ’s foot in the bottom right. It is poised as to leave, yet he has only just gotten there. He already knows he has made his disciple, as if the power were effortless and overpowering, the light accomplished its effect as soon as he walked in. This leads to the second thing, that pointing hand. It is not a forcefully fashioned pointing as one would expect, a sort of “Hey you! Follow me, and I don’t mean on Twitter”. Rather, it is an effortless pointing gesture, as if the power flows through Christ with but a wave on his hand. This is also an aping of Michaelangelo Buonarotti’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, yet not the gesture of God the Father, but of Adam, drawing the clear link between the first Adam whose sin lost for us our original paradise, and the work of Christ, the second Adam, who will take Adam’s place as head of the human race, whose redemptive work in the calling of his Apostles will win for us a new paradise. This gesture, moreover, would have been well known. The paintings of the Sistine Ceiling were even then among the most famous paintings in Christendom, everyone would recognize it. Caravaggio’s first name is Michaelangelo, he is showing everyone that he is the new Michaelangelo, and no mistake. Whether he intended that as the outset or it was an afterthought we can’t know. But it accomplished this affect, as we shall see.
With this revelation, that the painting is about a sinner, Caravaggio turned to the eastern wall, back to the Martyrdom that so vexed him in the beginning.
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew
It is said by some art historians that Caravaggio repeated the motif of a contemporary scene, this time using a back alley in Rome. This ignores the prominent altar in the middle. There is, moreover, a strange positioning of figures around the lower center point, which seems to descend into a pit of sorts. That is because this is actually a Baptismal pool. A basic look at architecture of Rome’s older churches would show that the early Christians baptized adults by immersion.
What Caravaggio has done is to further develop the theme of Matthew’s martyrdom told in the Golden Legend, instead of being after Mass, it is now in the context of a Baptism. This is not mere artistic license, as we shall see. The image is whirling and busy, almost strobe lit. First you have several naked figures, prominent amongst them is the assassin in the middle, several clothed figures on the sides, St. Matthew and his deacon and an angel. Let’s break this down.
We know this is a baptismal scene from the solitary candle on the altar (prescribed in the Traditional rite of Baptism, Traditional Catholics should notice), the naked figures about to be baptized in the pool, and the steps leading down to it. Moreover, as the intrepid, charismatic, scholarly and always informative art historian Andrew Grahm-Dixon has noted:
“The significance of the painting’s architecture was long unrecognized, for the simple reason that hardly any such baptismal chapels survived. But they were once a common sight in Italian Churches, especially in the north. In Rome, where baptism by aspersion was the general practice, stepped pools were not necessary. But in Milan, where they practiced the Ambrosian rite of baptism by full bodily immersion, such chapels contained a deep pool at the base of the altar. The liturgically precise Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, writing his Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae, described an arrangement that closely corresponds to the setting of the Martyrdom of St. Matthew: ‘a baptistery should be in the center of the chapel. It should be eleven cubits wide and deep enough so that the descent to it from the floor of the chapel consists of at least three steps. By the descent and moderate depth it should resemble a sepulchre.’ It seems that Caravaggio painted the kind of baptismal chapel that he remembered from his childhood in Milan.” (Andrew Grahm-Dixon, Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane, pg. 200)
Grahm-Dixon has really hit the nail on the head, and he is the only person analyzing this painting to really get a sense of what is going on. We know (should know), that when one receives the sacrament of baptism, what he receives is death. The death of his old nature, and his being brought into the state of justification by sanctifying grace, into a new nature with Christ. Hence St. Paul says to be “put to death in Christ.” Death then, is the res tantum, the very thing conferred in Baptism, mystically and spiritually to our old nature born in original sin, and made living by sanctifying grace, inhering as a quality of the soul. Death in this world we will eventually meet, some sooner rather than later, and that death, if met in sanctifying Grace, Deo adjuvante, completes the work of Baptism.
This is what Caravaggio is working into this painting. If one looks at St. Matthew, the blood is squirting from his wound into the Baptismal pool. This is where Grahm-Dixon, in spite of his excellent grasp of theology (for a non-believer) makes an error of terminology. He calls this a “Baptism of Blood.” In a certain sense of course, this is true, but it is not what the theologians mean when they use that term. It is a handy in this context, provided that we keep the distinction from that which is meant by Theologians when they use this term, meaning someone with right faith who is martyred prior to his baptism, such as a Catechumen, of which there are several saints whom the Church has always celebrated. Here, what Grahm-Dixon is getting at, is that St. Matthew, now at the end of his life, is receiving the very thing conferred by baptism really in this world, death.
We can see an angel on a cloud, invisible to all but St. Matthew, lowering the palm to him. It is on an exact line of symmetry with Matthew’s hand, which on the one hand, is grasped by the assassin, but on the other, is reaching out to grasp eternal life. The angel on the cloud is also situated just above the cross, in an exact line of symmetry going down into the pool, as a sign that the graces of martyrdom flow from the graces of baptism, united in the blood that is being shed, in imitation of Christ who shed his blood on the cross.
Those catechumens recoil in horror, as the pagan assassin is obviously one who hid in their number and produced the sword to bring St. Matthew down. Those at the left run away, and the furthermost character is a selp-portrait of Caravaggio himself. What is often missed by most is that Caravaggio is here wearing a black garment over a white loin cloth, as though he were among the catechumens to be baptized, but is running away like the rest. As Grahm-Dixon, again, notes:
“The self-portrait, in this instance, reads like a mea culpa. If Caravaggio had actually been there, he suggests, he would have had no more courage than anyone else. He would have fled like the other, leaving the martyr to his fate. According to the logic of his own narrative, he remains unbaptized and therefore outside the circle of the blessed. He is a man running away, out of the church and into the street.” (Grahm-Dixon, loc. cit. pg. 202)
An anecdote from the artist’s later life would appear to justify that interpretation. Coming out of a Church in Naples, a priest offered Caravaggio some holy water, and Caravaggio asked what it was for. The priest replied “It washes away venial sins.” Caravaggio replied “That won’t do any good, all mine are mortal.” Either way there is one thing more we can draw from this. If one draws a diagonal line from the bottom right hand corner, one arrives at Caravaggio’s face in the painting. This is not just a sort of signature, but again, the artist attempting to prove himself as superior to his namesake. If we look at Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, we can find the same detail.
When the paintings were unveiled they were an instant hit and propelled Caravaggio into immediate fame. It also got him immediate commissions and roused the jealousy and rivalry of other artists, particularly of his later biographer Giovanni Baglione. They also began the course of inspiring European art and would influence artists as far away as France and the Netherlands, as we see in how Rubens and Rembrandt adopted his style, although both were able to incorporate it into their styles without becoming slavish copiers of it. However in 1602 the executors of Cardinal Cointrel’s will had yet another set-back, in that the artist whom they had commissioned to carry out the altar piece had failed to produce anything, so they turned again to Caravaggio. We might notice that in the above paintings there are a lot of feet. Well, this had become an issue for Caravaggio, as he attempted frequently to include dirty feet to show the poverty of people in his paintings, but this was more and more being considered to be in bad taste. So when he prominently displayed St. Matthew’s dirty feet in the “Inspiration”, the painting was rejected and he had to do it again. The first attempt (which I do not have the rights to put up here) is preserved only in a photograph because it was in a museum in Berlin when it was blown up by the Allies during the second world war. (Thank you, by the way, US and UK, for obliterating so much priceless art in your mad rush to bomb all of Europe in the 40s). The second attempt, nevertheless, won their approval and was unveiled late in 1602.
The Inspiration of St. Matthew
The second Inspiration of St. Matthew is a more toned down version of the original. He presents Matthew the saint as a scholar, a long way from the rich and splendid origins in the Calling, listening attentively as the airborne angel dictates the verse as he copies it down. The feet moreover are in profile and not pointing at the viewer, and thus it pleased the executors of the Contarelli chapel, and it still hangs there today.
In a certain way, this work looks a lot like sculpture, particularly the figure of Matthew. There is less movement than in the other two pictures. This has much to do with the fact that the piece originally intended for the chapel back in 1599 was a marble relief, and thus Caravaggio has attempted to keep the spirit of the original intention. He maintained some of the austerity of his original, clearly gives St. Matthew an intellectual air. He wears a red pallium, which is similar to the pallium worn by philosophers in the 2nd century, and as he writes, the angel counts the verses, being at number two since Italians count starting with their thumb, even today.
There is an element in the way of biblical inspiration here that one can’t miss, namely the connection between the angelic inspiration and the human element. While I admire Caravaggio’s first attempt, (which again I can’t show you thanks to draconian copyright laws, although the photograph is reproduced in both books referenced in this article) ultimately it made Matthew too plebeian, unused to writing, which would not be the case for a tax collector who needed to keep special records, one for the government, and one for himself, the former being fixed, the latter showing his actual embezzlement. Depicting Matthew as a sage or philosopher in the Greco-Roman tradition actually helps convey the vehicle of biblical inspiration. Matthew had been with Christ, he had seen the events unfold which led to the formation of the Church, and he writes his account, with the angel’s directing, for in counting the verses the Angel is not necessarily telling him what to write, but guiding his writing in the direction of God’s providence with the aid of His inspiration.
Stepping back from the Contarelli chapel and taking it all in as a whole (as you reach in your pocket for more euros to feed the machine that keeps the lights on the thing), there is a sense of power and motion in these images, particularly in the Calling and Martyrdom of St. Matthew. It almost feels as though if you pushed the play button the figures would begin moving. This is no accident, it is one of the effects baroque artists sought to convey in their art, the illusion of movement, the figures coming back to life, and this had been the goal of oil painters since the time of Van Eyck, who in his Ghent altar piece painted Adam so realistic (for the standards of the 15th century) that it seemed as though Adam would begin to move. Van Eyck’s fame was such that Versari thought he had created oil paint, though this was not true, Van Eyck was the one to perfect the medium. Caravaggio took it to a new level, with his use of the light and darkness, chiarascuro, using the contrasts and the strokes of the brush to create a drama unfolding before you. Martin Scorsese, as immoral as he and his movies might be, got it right when he said that Caravaggio was the father of cinematography.