The Saint Matthew Cycle

Caravaggio, a Sinner painting Saints

  • Amarens Roman - Faculty of Medicine
  • Tammo Severin - Faculty of Behavioral and social sciences
  • Peter Vermazeren - Faculty of Law

The Contarelli Chapel Caravaggio The Counter Reformation St. Matthew
The Contarelli Chapel

Through painting the cycle of St. Matthew, located in the Contarelli Chapel, in his very distinct way, Caravaggio manages to not only diminish his personal cognitive dissonance between his frivolous lifestyle and his strict religious beliefs and values, but also serve as a carrier of Counter Reformation on a societal level. He tells the narrative of St. Matthew in a way the contemporary audience can identify with. By showing the possibility of salvation despite the mundane nature of life at the time, he creates the foundation for people to belief in the teachings of the church.

Caravaggio uses ambiguity to draw the audience in. Through the denial of a ultimate interpretation of his work, he metaphorically plants a seed in the mind of his audience that requires them to cultivate it on their own, his answer to the problem of discrepancy between life at the time and the belief in God is effectively yet another question which needs to be answered by the audience. He shifts the responsibility to the viewer to define what moral principles can be deducted from his work, re-establishing the belief in god.

The Comission
The St. Matthew Cycle
The Calling of St. Matthew
The Inspiration of St. Matthew
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

The Comission

Caravaggio was given the opportunity to work in the chapel by Francesco del Monte in 1599 after his master at that time, Giuseppe Cesari, had done the vault of the chapel but pleaded too busy to continue working on the walls. Caravaggio this was the first large commission in Rome and a real challenge in terms of artwork as it was the first time he was supposed to create "complex religious narrative paintings" on an exceptionally large space. Cesari also had already started to make plans for the chapel, making sketches of how he imagined the scenes.

But not only the motive was strictly predetermined. The artworks should be frescos, painted directly on the chapel walls, which meant that Caravaggio who was used to paint in his studio, had to adapt a new technique. Especially the fact that the plaster on the wall was drying extremely fast urges the painter to be fast and precise as there is no room for errors. Caravaggio though, decided not to deviate from his usual style and painted on enormous canvases instead. Though disapproving of this method at first, his patrons accepted his work regardless.[5]

The Saint Matthew Cycle

When seeing the three paintings as they hang in the Contarelli Chapel the viewer begins to thoroughly understand that they belong together, on multiple levels, as they all depict scenes of St. Matthew's life.

The first layer would be composition from an art/craftsman's perspective. The lighting in all three paintings seems to stem from the angle depicted in the centerpiece (The Inspiration of St. Matthew). Through this connection Caravaggio manages to bind them together, which adds another layer to it: the narrative.

When seeing the three paintings together one begins to grasp the story they are telling through the lens of Caravaggio's eyes. It is the story of reconciliation of a simple sinner who is enlightened by the wisdom of god. Eventually even his soul might still be saved, represented by the angel in the clouds in the last painting (The martyrdom of St. Matthew). Several principles especially seem relevant since they are repeated throughout the narrative. Caravaggio creates a source of identification by various means to strengthen the viewer's commitment in analyzing the paintings.

Subsequently he uses ambiguity to encourage the audience to interpret the paintings on their own. He raises questions such as: What is going on in the scene, where does the scene take place and who is acting? The viewer has to answer them himself.

The Calling of St. Matthew

The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

The first of the three paintings planned at the chapel was The Calling of St. Matthew. Contarelli had described how he imagined the picture with a lot of detail. It should show Matthew as a tax collector in his office, while standing up to follow Christ's call. Interestingly Cesari already made sketches of how he imagined the scene depicted by Contarelli. These sketches show a relatively bright room, which is recognized, as a tax collector's office by its furniture and layout. Matthew is in the process of surprisingly pointing a finger at himself while walking towards Christ who is standing in the center of the sketch.

When analyzing the later painting of Caravaggio one has to put scrutiny to the fact that as his scholar, he knew about the way that Cesari wanted to depict the scene. His deliberate deviation from this sketch version gives us an insight into how revolutionary the painting was. From a rhetorical point of view by deviating from the first sketch, Caravaggio established his independence from his former master, greatly strengthening his own ethos. Caravaggio decides for the scene to be set in a different much darker setting, favoring his own representation of reality. He is showing a poorly lit space, which could be either inside an office or on the streets. By using the architectural feature of the window in the top right corner as "framing device" he distorts reality, making it more ambiguous. It is also not entirely clear who Matthew is in this composition. [1]

At the center of the painting are two young men depicted as pages.[2] The action in the painting is polarized away from the center. At the right side of the painting one can see Christ and St. Peter enter the scene. In contrast to Cesari's idea of the painting, Christ is almost not visible as he is hidden in the dark behind Peter. Only his finger is lit by a stream of light coming from the right top corner of the painting. When taking a closer look at the finger one might notice an uncanny resemblance to the pointing finger depicted in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.[3] It is not the hand of god it is similar too, but Adam's. This clearly shows how Caravaggio manages to give meaning to the painting by adding just another layer of detail. He depicts Christ as a new Adam "made in God's image but purged of sin", making him seem more human. This serves as decreasing the distance between the audience and the people depicted (even to Christ).

When glancing from Christ's hand to his feet, one notices that he has already turned and is leaving the scenery, as one of his feet points outwards. This shows how Caravaggio manages to represent cause and effect in an ambiguous way; Matthew might be called and even before the call has fully reached its recipient, Christ leaves again. This is completely opposite to his other work: The Calling of St. Paul where only the enlightenment is depicted, the effect without a cause.

The inspiration of St. Matthew

The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1600-1602)

A year after he had finished the other two paintings for the Contarelli Chapel Caravaggio was asked to paint the altarpiece of the Chapel. Originally Jacob Cobaert was asked to deliver a marble altarpiece of Matthew and the angel, but when he finally finished it, it was instantly rejected.4] In the first version of his painting, Caravaggio painted a sculptural composition. St Matthew and the angel formed a single monumental group. The evangelist sits with the great book on his lap. He has a balding head, gnarled hands, bare legs and dirty feet.4] In this painting Caravaggio showed us a different Matthew than the Matthew we saw in the first two paintings in the Chapel. The divine Matthew turned into an inelegant commoner.

The gospel of Matthew was an important controversy between the Catholics and Protestants. In the fourth century St. Jerome has asserted that Matthew wrote in Hebrew, but in 1537 a Protestant Hebraist, Sebastian Munster, claimed that the true text of Matthew was a Jewish manuscript. Caravaggio was aware of this and by writing the words in the book on Matthew's lap in Hebrew he shows his affiliation with the Catholic Church, promoting the counterreformation.[5]

In this painting you can very clearly see the difference between Caravaggio and other painters such as Michelangelo. Michelangelo's prophets are idealized figures, but Caravaggio's Matthew is an ordinary, imperfect, almost brutish human, who is too uncertain to write on its own and therefore needs the help of an angel.[2][5] Another interesting detail is the intimate relationship between the saint and the young angel. The angel stands symbol for the messenger of God, but also for the embodiment of Christian love, which is so generous it encompasses even those as old and shabby as St Matthew. Moreover we can see the metaphor of the old and the young. In the painting you can see the transition from Old Testament to the New Testament, as Matthew is the first prophet who writes his Gospel.[5]

After Caravaggio had finished the central picture of St Matthew and installed it on the altar, the priests took it down. The reason was that the figure with its legs crossed and its feet exposed to the public didn't have the appearance of a saint. That was precisely Caravaggio's point: Christ and his followers looked a lot more like beggars than they looked like cardinals. Bare feet were a controversial topic at that time. They symbolized the poor and humble and they are the lowest part of the human body. When you honor the feet, you honor the lowest part of the human body and therefore you make yourself humble. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, he was also calling on the rich to give away all their possessions and make themselves humble.[4]

After the first painting was rejected, Vincenzo Giustiniani persuaded Mathieu Cointrel to give Caravaggio a second attempt. The second version of St Matthew and the Angel was accepted without problems.[5] The peasant had suddenly been turned into Matthew the dignified sage. He has a more distinguished beard, is draped in red robes, listens to the Angel and there is a difference in the feet. They are shown in profile rather than thrust towards the viewer, still bare but they probably wouldn't offend anybody anymore. In this way St. Matthew's ethos was underlined.

Another interesting difference between the two versions is that in the first version you look down on Matthew, which makes him more earthly. In the second painting you have to look up to him, which reinforces your sense of his role as a holy man.[4]

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

On the right panel is depicted the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The painter's troubled inspiration for this painting eventually became well known in Rome. X-rays of the painting confirm the rumor that Caravaggio remade the composition twice over.[6] In earlier drafts the painter would have had St. Matthew standing up while fending off three attackers. Now instead we view the moment of the apostle's death after being stabbed by the assassin in the loincloth on the foreground.

As with many of his other paintings Caravaggio has split cause and effect. Where his earlier attempts seem to have focused on the cause, now it is up to the viewer to fill in what transpired before this moment. The painting leaves some clues about what happened leading up to the moment of death but gives no conclusive answers.

The scene itself however is not described in the bible as are those of the other two paintings. This is most likely inspired by the story of Matthew's stay in Ethiopia[7]. Known as a great converter, the apostle had gathered many people to the Christian faith including the King, Queen and their daughter Ephigenia. The latter would then proceed to join a Christian order and in so doing be married to Christ.

Hirtacus the king's successor however was determined to marry Ephigenia to consolidate his power. Matthew however counselled het to remain true to Christ and not marry the new King. Upon hearing this Hirtacus had the apostle killed by a hired assassin.

The scene depicted by Caravaggio shows St. Matthew in a walk-in baptistery as were common in northern Italy during Caravaggio's youth.[5] The assassin seems to have hidden within the group of people to be baptized by Matthew. Having been stabbed Matthew raises his hand to fend off any further attacks. The other people depicted in the scene look in horror at what just transpired.

While the setting might be different Caravaggio undoubtedly must have seen Titian's St. Petyr Martyr before and used it as an inspiration. The pose of the attackers and apostles are nearly identical, as are the cherub like angels on the top of the paintings.

An interesting detail is that Caravaggio placed himself into the scene as an onlooker who looks back to the scene whilst running away.[8] The painter's exact meaning behind this is unknown, be it vanity, or an expression of sorrow. However what we do know is that the painter had not imagined himself coming to the defense of the apostle but as an onlooker. What's also curious here is that Caravaggio looks back with sadness written on his face. Possible explanations are either his sorrow over Matthew's death or even remorse over being an accessory to the murder. The last explanation might be backed by the fact that it is unclear where the assassin got his weapon from. It might have been his weapon the killer used.[8]

During all this the angel seems to offer a hand hold in form of a twig to Matthew. Whether or not he actually grasps it remains to be seen. A possible explanation for this would be Matthews soul being ushered directly into Heaven and god watching over his most faithful.

Whether or not Matthew is still alive in the scene is unclear.[9] What should be noted however is that this picture shows Matthew's life ending as he spent it: in service of Christianity, converting heathens to Christianity and spreading the faith.


  1. "Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions" David M. Stone p.155-156
  2. "Circa 1600 a revolution of Style in Italian Painting" S.J. Freedberg p. 60-63
  3. "Caravaggio" (english version) Rodolfo Papa p. 76
  4. "Altarpieces and their viewers in the churches of Rome" Pamela M. Jones p. 101-102, p. 110)
  5. "Caravaggio: a life sacred and profane" Andrew Graham-Dixon p. 232-239
  6. "Caravaggio: Realism, Rebellion, Reception" Genevieve Warwick p. 17
  7. "The Golden Legend, vol. 5 by Jacobus de Voragine" Transl. F.S. Ellis p. 71
  8. "Caravaggio, Die Bekehrung des kunstlers Bert Treffers" p. 34-37
  9. "Caravaggio" John Gash