The Calling of Saint Matthew is the second half of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s famous commission for the Contarelli Chapel. Its companion piece is The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
Both were completed between 1599 and 1600 and painted in oil on canvas. These pieces brought Caravaggio renown throughout Rome for his use of dramatic lighting and realism, which represented a departure from the Mannerist style that had dominated up to that point.
This piece shows the moment that Jesus called Matthew to follow him. Matthew sits at a table with four other men, when Jesus enters the room accompanied by Saint Peter and points to Matthew, summoning him to his cause.
There is, however, some debate over which figure in the painting is actually Matthew. Most believe it to be the bearded man, as he looks most like Caravaggio’s other depictions of Matthew in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew.
According the this interpretation, the bearded man points to himself, as if to confirm Jesus is calling upon him.
Others though believe that the bearded man is instead pointing to the young man hunched at the end of the table, suggesting that this is Matthew, who is about to look up to see Jesus. Still others posit that Caravaggio’s painting is intentionally ambiguous.
The use of tenebrism, sharply contrasting light and shadow, is particularly effective in this work.
The light shining through the window behind Jesus on to the awe-inspired faces of the men he addresses imparts to him a divine quality.
Caravaggio used this technique extensively in his work to draw focus and create drama. His pieces inspired many Baroque artists, who also used tenebrism to great effect.
Though Caravaggio started work on The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew first, he abandoned it to work on this piece instead, and likely finished this one first.
Both remain in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome along with The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, which Caravaggio was commissioned to paint some time later.