Michelangelo Buonarotti and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio that is.
By Marthino Correia
Caravaggio, like any master, understood art history and was able to play with the language of art to make complex theological statements. A continual source for him was Michelangelo and we find Caravaggio quoting the great master in many of his paintings.
In the Contarelli Chapel (1599 – 1600) in San Luigi Francesi in Rome, Caravaggio was granted his first major commission. On his death in 1585 the French cardinal, Matthieu Cointerel (Contarelli in Italian) had left a large sum of money and instructions for a chapel to be dedicated to his patron saint, St. Matthew. Caravaggio completed the commissions on canvas, something unheard of for large murals at that time which were usually executed in fresco. Three large painting were finished in 8 months.
In the first painting, “The Calling Of St Matthew”, we see Christ calling Matthew, aka Levi, as described in Matthew 9.9: “And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, follow me. And he arose, and followed him.”
Caravaggio gives Christ the hand of Adam from the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Man”, signalling the similarity between God and man and the human nature of Christ: Christ is the new Adam. Notice also how Peter, the first pope, echoes the gesture, describing how the Church continues the work of Christ.
Matthew and his colleagues are dressed in clothing contemporary to Caravaggio, from the early 17th C, while Christ and Peter are dressed in what would be early 1st C wear. This emphasizes that Christ’s call is eternal, for all people of all ages.
Caravaggio was the perfect counter-reformation painter. A complicated individual but entirely professional and profound in his work. In the next post we will look at the complex and interesting theology presented by Caravaggio in a second painting in the chapel, “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”.