Just as Holy Scripture lends itself to various levels of interpretation, it is also possible view great works of art through different lenses. Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew is a case in point.
In this oil painting, two scenes can be distinguished: on the right, Jesus and Peter call the publican Matthew, who is seated on the left at his tax collection table. To bring the episode up to date, the Italian painter represented the characters in 16th-century attire. It would be difficult to transpose the scene to today’s equivalent. Perhaps a stock exchange, crowded with plutocrats?…
According to the Gospels (cf. Mt 9:9; Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27-28), Jesus, passing by the seaside, saw Matthew and said to him: “Follow Me.” The latter then rose, left everything and followed Him. It should be noted that the Greek expression used for this rising – anástasis – is the same as that used for the verb to resurrect. Conversion is a true resurrection!
Excluding the figure on the left, standing, because Matthew was seated at the collection station, who in the scene would be the future Apostle?
Tradition has tended to identify him with the noble gentleman with the long beard, seeming to point to himself. However, a different interpretation suggests that he is not identifying himself, but the young man hunched over the edge of the table. Another view is based on the writings of Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel, patron of the work in question. He had asked the artist to portray Matthew at the exact moment of standing up. In this case, the tax collector would be the last one on the right… However, if Caravaggio is indeed the “master of ambiguity”, wouldn’t Matthew perhaps be the boy in the middle? And what if they were all Matthew?…
Jesus, standing in the chiaroscuro so typical of Caravaggio, is not pointing at anyone specifically, while the shaft of light from above, symbolizing grace, falls on all.
However, the man on the far left, with his head bowed, is so avid for the vile metal that his eyes do not even notice the presence of the “Light of the world” (Jn 8:12). His age betrays, perhaps, that he is being assailed by the devastating “noonday devil” (Ps 90:6 Vulg.). Bent under the weight of iniquity, this “prodigal son” appears to have hands more beastly than human. Now, the first step towards conversion is to escape from the bestiality of sin.
The bearded man is also covetous: his right hand is clutching at coins, but he is able to look up and to reflect on himself. In fact, observing the shadow on his hand, one perceives that his forefinger is actually turned towards himself, as if inquiring, “Is it I, Lord?” Although admiring, his recoiling position reveals that he still possesses certain ties to the past.
The candid little boy seems to mimic the rich young man of the Gospel, who kept the Commandments in their entirety and received the same call as Matthew: “Follow Me” (Mt 19:21). However, his attachment to earthly goods – and here the plume is a symbol of frivolity – prevented him from abandoning everything and taking the path of perfection. That is why he is still leaning on the “old man”.
The figure on the right represents the characteristics of the young adult: bold, emotional and confrontational. He is the only one to carry a sword, a symbol of decision, whose etymology traces back to the idea of cutting – in this case, with the past life. Unsettled on his stool, he is already rising in the direction of the door, towards which the feet of Jesus are headed, as if urging: “Come quickly!”
If the old miser with the pince-nez cannot be Matthew, then who could it be? Notice his attitude of incitement, as if urging: “Count the money well…” It is easy to ascertain, therefore, that he is a devil – the exact opposite of Our Lord in the scene.
Peter’s presence inspires us to consider that conversion and perseverance come about through the Church, first of all through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The great banquet that Matthew offered to the Lord is a symbol of this, a true “altar” which made reparation for the collection table. Conversion in fact means a complete return to Christ, who constantly knocks at the door of souls. As Huysmans rightly diagnosed it, “The conversion of the sinner is not his cure, but only his convalescence.”1
In short, if Matthew can be found in everyone, regardless of his age or stage of spiritual life, he is also sitting, at this very moment, reading this article. And once again, Jesus exhorts, “Follow Me.”
What, then, will be your response? ◊
1 HUYSMANS, Joris-Karl. En route. 12.ed. Paris: Tresse & Stock, 1895, p.285.