Fr. Peter Gruber
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Pope Francis remarked in his 2013 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.
“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”
In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis found the perfect image to express his own surprise at being uniquely called by Christ to serve the Church as supreme pontiff.
But, we have a problem. Which figure in the painting is St. Matthew?
(If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to give the painting a good look and try to figure it out for yourself.)
Besides the faintest loop over Christ’s head, there are no halos in this painting. Nor should there be – St. Matthew was only Matthew the tax-collector at this point. Here he is, in the midst of his sin and in corrupt company. Matthew has just as much chance of being called out of this situation as any of the five guys in the tax office.
But which one is he?
Option 1: The Bearded Man
At first glance, Matthew appears to be the man with long beard. His eyes show surprise, his face is illuminated, his finger seems to point toward his breast. And, maybe just to help us out, he has a distinguishing coin in his hat and a right hand fingering money on the table. If there is anyone in this painting who is reacting as the one who is called, it’s this guy.
There are two other reasons why the bearded man is the best candidate for Matthew.
First, Caravaggio did not paint The Calling by itself. With this painting in the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome, Caravaggio painted two other scenes from the life of St. Matthew: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. In both of these adjacent paintings, Matthew is depicted as a man with a sizable beard.
The second reason concerns some of the interesting history going on at that point. Before this was painted, there was a passing fear that France might go the way of the Church of England. This fear partially subsided when the Huguenot (Protestant) Henry IV converted back to Catholicism upon taking the French throne in 1593. Caravaggio was commissioned six years later to paint three works for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French). To flatter the now-Catholic king of France (and appease his patron), Caravaggio painted St. Matthew to resemble Henry IV. (You can see the bearded resemblance here.)
But that might not be the whole story.
Option 2: The Hunched-Over Man
People make a big deal about Christ’s pointing gesture just below the window in the painting. His hand is unusually relaxed for a definitive signaling of direction. The reason for this is very likely that Caravaggio is alluding to a more famous painting: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s Adam is depicted in the Sistine Chapel fresco in the moment just before his animation, with his finger less than an inch from that of God. Michelangelo, instead of showing an Adam already filled with life, depicts the precise moment prior to his ensoulment with all the drama of a limp wrist.
Like Michelangelo, Caravaggio may not be capturing the moment of the calling of Matthew; he might very well be capturing the precise moment before the calling of Matthew. The finger of Christ the New Adam has yet to be fully extended, the call is only just about to happen. The whole painting is in that dramatic tension of the moment before the call.
In that case, Matthew is not the bearded man whose face is fully illuminated; Matthew is the man whose face is about to be illuminated – the smooth-faced hunched-over man.
And here, before the call reaches him – before the light reaches his face – Matthew is still a sinner, still a tax-collector, still fingering his coins and gripping his money bag. The bearded figure to his left anticipates the perceived direction of Christ’s soon-to-be-extended finger, pointing perhaps not to his own breast but to the hunched over man next to him. This man’s face, only half-illuminated by the light that comes from Christ’s entrance, still intently looks down to the table; he has but to lift his head an inch to make eye contact with Christ. Will his eyes meet the gaze that tests mortal men and will he remain the same? Will he respond to the call?
So, which one is Matthew?
It’s still not entirely clear. It can go either way.
But that’s probably how Caravaggio wants it to be. Caravaggio’s art was at the cutting edge of the subjective turn of modern thought. As a controversial artist of his time, he departed from the idea that art is exclusively at the service of the true, good, and beautiful, and turned instead toward an innovative realism. (See our earlier post on what makes art good.)
Part of Caravaggio’s goal is to pull the viewer into the painting. He wants this ambiguity; he wants you to be asking these questions. And he knows that things are not so cut and dry. Christ entered a world in chaos, a world engulfed in sin. He calls us out of that darkness and into His light.
Turning again to the painting, if we go to the source of Christ’s call and look above His not-yet-fully-outstretched right hand, we find ourselves at the base of a cross (the fourfold window pane forms a cross). Here we are meant to ponder Christ’s own cross. And at the cross, darkness appears to triumph over light, chaos over order, death over life. It is precisely at that moment when Christ conquers. It is from that cross that Christ calls His disciples, and it is to that cross that Christ calls His disciples. Like Matthew (whoever he is), we are drawn up while we are still sinners into the cross, into the central mystery of our faith.
Pope Francis (himself seeming to weigh in on Matthew as the bearded man) hits on what our response should be to Christ’s call: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
Independent of who we decide Matthew to be in this painting, our response to Christ should be the same as that of Pope Francis. We are that sinner uniquely called by Christ.
How will we respond to His call?
Main image: “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599-1600