One of my favorite young priests is named Matthew. For his ordination, he received a copy of the painting above. It is very appropriately entitled The Calling of Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The painting dates to around 1600 and portrays the calling of St. Matthew by Christ to become one of his apostles.
With our 21st-century eyes, we marvel at the realism of this art piece. It is indeed magnificent. But aside from being great art, Caravaggio’s piece could serve as a focal point for any day in the Lenten season as we strive to purify ourselves and grow closer to Jesus.
It’s catechesis on a canvas!
This scene is not set in a heavenly space. There are no cute chubby cherub babies roaming here! It’s a dark and possibly dank room, plainly decorated and sparsely furnished. This is where Caravaggio sets his Jesus. Of the two men standing, Jesus is the one in the back. He is not dressed like a man from first-century Judea, but like a contemporary of the other men. He looks young, gentle and easily approachable. In this way, Caravaggio’s Christ represents himself as a savior for all time, and for all people. He is meeting Matthew in his time, and in his very earthly space.
The other man is St. Peter. He is wearing biblical clothing to represent the church and to signify Christ’s Church and its origins. Both men are there to call St. Matthew.
The lighting in the painting is also significant. Even though there is a window on the wall the light seems to be coming from a heavenly source above Christ’s head. Light falls on all the men at the table, even the man who is looking downwards to avoid the gaze of Jesus. The diagonal line of the light emphasizes the line from Christ’s hand to the hand of the man pointing to himself. Some say that that man is St. Matthew.
Which One At the Table is the Most like Me?
The men around the table are interesting. There is the man at the far end counting all of his money, too engrossed in the task to look up and see Christ. Does he hear His call and ignore it? The older gentleman with the glasses has the light shining fully on him, and yet he too is looking down at the money. Perhaps he has all of the education and head knowledge to know Christ but has still not really encountered Him. The man pointing seems surprised at Christ’s call. He seems to know he is the one being called. The youth at his shoulder has his face fully in the light, receptive to anything Christ might say. The young man with his back to us looks ready and eager to stand up and answer Christ’s call.
Is the pointing man Matthew? Or are they all Matthew at different times?
Can we see bits of all of these portrayals in our own lives?
Does concern over money and day-to-day survival block out the voice of Christ as we just focus on our daily needs? Matthew was a tax collector and this is tax season. Are we more focused on getting those returns done than following our Lenten devotions?
I tend to relate more than I should to the older gentleman. I have the knowledge of Christ but lack the motivation to just be in His presence. Unfortunately, perhaps I am also a bit more like the pointing man, looking for someone else to answer the call instead of me. It would be wonderful this Lent to become more like the youths in this art piece — faces shining with the light of Christ and intent on listening carefully to him, ready to get up and just follow the call of Christ.
Perhaps there are times in our lives where we can be like each one of the men. Maybe we are even like each one of these gentlemen at different times in the same day! That is true as well.
Copyright 2018 Elena LaVictoire