October 12th 2019

“St Matthew and the Angel”, Caravaggio, 1602, formerly Kaiser-Friedrich Museum Berlin, destroyed by fire in1945.   Some time after he had completed his “Call of St Matthew” and “Martyrdom of St Matthew” for the lateral walls of the Contarelli Chapel in Roman Church of San Luigi Francesi,  Caravaggio was commissioned to paint this altarpiece.  As stipulated, St Matthew is shown full length, in the act of writing his gospel with an angel on his right, but the work was rejected.  A biographer said that it pleased no one.  His second version which is still there in situ.  His first St Mathew very different to the saint on the lateral walls. He is dressed in a workman’s tunic. His sturdy legs are crossed and his left foot almost breaches the painting surface round about where a priest would elevate the host at Mass.  To our eyes, this is a most undignified Matthew.  But in fact the pose with his legs crossed was an an established way of depicting sacred authors.   For example, Michelangelo used it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  However, even with crossed legs,  Michelangelo’s figures do not look like common labourers. By contrast, the child-like angel is finely dressed, as if to contrast the heavenly and earthly.   The angel guides Matthew’s hand as he writes.  Matthew has a look of incredulity, like that of an illiterate adult being taught how to write by an angelic child. It would seem that Caravaggio wants to emphasise Matthew’s humility before God’s inspiration. Notice that the view point is from above. In fact, Caravaggio has drawn on a well-known likeness of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was often shown as a humble character.  The Church  Fathers saw in Socrates a parallel with Christ, suggesting continuity  between the pagan world and that of Christianity.  Socrates said that the high point of wisdom was to realise that in fact you know little. Caravaggio lets the light fall on the page and on their hands, suggesting the light that shines in the darkness. The contrast between this old man and the beautiful angelic child marks the threshold between the old and the new dispensation, which is where Matthew’s gospel sits. Why was it rejected?    Was it that this ungainly St Matthew as Evangelist, was so different from the earlier more distinguished St Matthew as the Apostle?  Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between his two Matthews. His second closely resembles the more dignified model from the earlier ones.  Moreover, the saint is upright, no longer wearing contemporary working clothes, but “biblically” dressed and seen from below. The angel hovers above him, like and annunciation, and this Matthew writes for himself.  Perhaps, the,  there is a hint in this second Matthew of Caravaggio’s inspired first Matthew.


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

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.

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