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Calling And Caravaggio

Today Father Raymond J. de Souza revisits the light and beauty of Caravaggio's timeless work ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’ and the truth it continues to communicate to viewers in this day and age. 

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Topics: Arts
Calling And Caravaggio September 21, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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ROME – I think it was 15 years ago that I was last in Rome on the feast day of St. Matthew. (According to the Catholic liturgical calendar, September 21.) It’s been a while since I could do what I always did during my student days in Rome on St. Matthew’s feast, namely visit the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Why St. Louis of France? France’s national church in Rome is full of masterpieces – like so many others in this city of sacred art and architecture. And like many other churches too, the greatest treasure is not the main altarpiece, but a rather a side chapel. The one everyone visits in San Luigi contains a series of three paintings of the life of St. Matthew, done by Caravaggio around the year 1600.

The Calling of St. Matthew is the most splendid of the three, but the other two, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and The Inspiration of St. Matthew are none too shabby. In Canada we would build an entire cathedral or art gallery around any one of the three.

Done in the chiaroscuro style that Caravaggio mastered, in which light and darkness seem to be characters in the scene, The Calling of St. Matthew has the tax collector about his work, his eyes illuminated by light that appears to have been sent forth from the outstretched arm of Jesus, extended toward Matthew as Michelangelo extended the creative hand of God toward Adam.

On any given day in Rome, pilgrims, art students and tourists come to see Caravaggio’s triptych on St. Matthew. On September 21st, the balance is more toward the pious. And it turns out that the Caravaggio paintings had a rather pious visitor in the last years.

A few months after his 2013 election, Pope Francis granted an interview to Father Antonio Spadaro, who began with a simple question: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” It produced a fascinating answer, as Fr. Spadaro himself recounts:

The pope stares at me in silence. I ask him if this is a question that I am allowed to ask.... He nods that it is, and he tells me: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

…Yes, the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him], was very true for me.”

The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, who writes in his comments on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].

Pope Francis continues his reflection and tells me, in a change of topic that I do not immediately understand: “I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. … I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s...but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’ by Caravaggio.” I begin to intuit what the pope wants to tell me.

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “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.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “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.”

This morning at the Holy Mass for the participants in the conference which I am attending, the preacher, Willem Cardinal Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, spoke at length about Caravaggio’s painting. He noted that the light that comes upon Matthew is a light from Christ that falls upon others too, those who are with Matthew at the toll booth. Cardinal Eijk noted that even Matthew himself seems unsure for whom the light is intended. The light falls upon many in darkness, inviting a response, a response that Matthew is able to give in response to God’s grace.

Caravaggio’s sermon on canvas was referred to by Pope Benedict XVI in a discourse on St. Matthew in August 2006:

His name in Hebrew means "gift of God". The first canonical Gospel, which goes under his name, presents him to us in the list of the Twelve, labelled very precisely: "the tax collector" (Mt 10: 3).

Thus, Matthew is identified with the man sitting at the tax office whom Jesus calls to follow him: "As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me'. And he rose and followed him" (Mt 9: 9). Mark (cf. 2: 13-17) and Luke (cf. 5: 27-30), also tell of the calling of the man sitting at the tax office, but they call him "Levi". To imagine the scene described in Mt 9:9, it suffices to recall Caravaggio's magnificent canvas, kept here in Rome at the Church of St. Louis of France.

With the exception of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Caravaggio’s Matthew might be the best known of paintings in Rome. Looking at them today after many years, I noticed two things that had previously escaped me.

First, in The Calling, it is St. Peter who is beside Jesus, though with his back to us. Given the impact of the painting upon Pope Francis before his election, the fact that Peter is present in the shadows takes on additional importance. Matthew points to himself in response to Jesus; Jorge Bergoglio thought of himself as Matthew. Yet his vocation as Peter is there too, in the shadows.

Second, Cardinal Eijk this morning had noted that in The Calling, Matthew’s quill and inkwell are visible on this table, the tools of his record-keeping as a tax collector. But they also signal his future as an evangelist. In The Inspiration of St. Matthew, Matthew, now an old man, has the quill in hand, now about his vocation of writing his Gospel. The play of light in The Inspiration is not as complex; both Matthew and the angel above are fully illuminated. It is the Word of God that shines in the darkness; it is the light of the Holy Spirit that suffuses the inspired biblical text. It is that same light that reaches Matthew at his tax booth, and calls him. That same light, interpreted by Caravaggio more than four centuries ago, shines forth still on the pilgrims gathered below.

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