How to Read Paintings: The Inspiration of St Matthew by Caravaggio
Look at this painting. What is going on in it? An ageing man is working at a wooden table. He has an ink quill in his hand and a book open before him. His work has been interrupted by a young boy. Their eyes are locked in an intense dialogue. The boy appears to be descending from above.
Look at the boy more closely. Can you tell how he hangs there? The way the light falls on his arms and shoulders makes his upper torso easy to see. The rest of his body, as it disappears into those swirling folds of white fabric, is less straight forward to determine. He is part human and part something else. It is only after a while that you realise he has two substantial wings flapping from his back.
It is one of the brilliant aspects of this painting that it moves so boldly between tangible realism and extraordinary artifice. Look at the boy again. By the gesture of his hands he appears to be explaining something.
If you are familiar with the subject matter of the painting, you’ll know that the man depicted is the aging St Matthew, the author of the first Gospel of the New Testament. And the boy — an angel — is his inspiration. In literal terms, the angel is dictating whilst Matthew writes.
The angel, therefore, is engaged in what is a lengthy task of exposition. Now consider: is the angel stationary and static as he hangs in the air like that? Given his task, you might think so. Yet from the tumbling spiral of fabric around him, the appearance is of a recent and sudden descent from the heavens. The image is full of such movement and poise. Just try to imagine what the scene would look like in a few seconds from now. Would all that fabric have fallen and settled somewhere?
Caravaggio, who painted this work in 1602, was fully aware of the artificiality of the picture. He is more than happy to reveal it to us: you only need to look at the foot of the painting to see how the stool that Matthew rests his knee on has been painted to break through the internal space of the image and overhang the edge of the scene. This technique, known as trompe-l’œil, is a way of indicating the power of the artist’s creation — his ability to create three-dimensional space on a flat canvas surface.
Caravaggio knew how to employ artificiality to its best effect too. In this image, the angel is a perfect construct of opposing ideas: he floats and yet he is materially tangible and present. He is both constantly within the scene and yet perpetually arriving at the same time. He is surprising and also fully discernible. The angel is, in my opinion, one of the great wonders of this painting, for it is through the angel that Caravaggio has condensed time and movement into a single, frozen frame.
The other wonder of the painting is St Matthew himself. Caravaggio has painted him in an unusual pose. Even though this is an intimate scene, Matthew is described in a full-body pose from head to toe.
He has one foot on the floor and the other raised with his knee on the stool. The posture seems to suggest one of surprise and alarm at the presence of the angel. Matthew’s shoulder is turned away from the angel as if he is recoiling from the sudden arrival. His vivid orange cloak stands out against the dark background. This sweep of orange provides a gentle curve that holds the entire composition together.
Caravaggio appears to have given a great deal of thought to the expression and posture of Matthew. As well he might have done, for this was his second attempt at the subject. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected by his patrons — who hired him to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona in Rome — because they felt he’d painted the saint with too little reverence. In the first version, Matthew’s bare feet and wrinkled brow were given prominence; meanwhile the angel was shown standing beside him dotingly, as a child might stand next to its grandparent.
Caravaggio attempted a second version, this time imbuing the intimate exchange between the saint and angel with an accompanying sense of awe. The vertical space is used to suggest the earthly and heavenly realms, whilst the relationship between the two figures is charged with yet more hints of a drama unfolding before us.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, critic and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo and other e-reader devices).
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