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 an open book 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 straightforward 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 ageing 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…