In 1602 Caravaggio was commissioned to paint the altarpiece for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. It was to show St Matthew writing his gospel. Caravaggio had already completed the call of St Matthew and his martyrdom for the lateral walls of the side chapel. Caravaggio painted two versions of this subject. In both versions, St Matthew is shown in the act of writing his gospel, under the guidance of an angel. But they are very different. In the first version, the Evangelist is a thick set plebeian figure, dressed in the short tunic of a labourer. He is seated with his legs crossed, holding the book on his knee. An angel leans in close to him and seems to be guiding his hand as he writes the first words of the gospel text. He looks incredulous. It is as if he has no ownership of what his hand is writing. This first version was rejected probably because as a biographer wrote later, it pleased no one. St Matthew lacked sufficient decorum. In this second version, St Matthew has much greater dignity. He is dressed in “biblical” style robes of red and orange. He has been interrupted in writing by the angel who hovers above him and seems to be giving him instructions. The angel is surrounded by swirls of white cloth which suggest the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. The cloth marks out a clear distinction between the earthly and heavenly realms. This St Matthew appears to be noble, intelligent, and closely attentive to the angelic instruction. The stool on which he kneels looks as if it is about to fall forward, bridging the gap between the pictorial space and that of the viewer. This lends force to the truth of the working of the Holy Spirit in St Matthew as he wrote and, of course, in the viewer’s life. We celebrate the Feast of St Matthew on Tuesday.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.