A painter’s analysis of Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew by Timothy Joseph Allen.
Written as a response to my late great colleague Professor Terry Kirk in December, 2006. Published on pLog July, 2010.
Terry, your analysis and interpretation of this painting is intriguing. I especially like your idea about pinpointing the exact moment in time that has been captured–and if I’ve understood correctly–you assert it is just after the words of Christ have been spoken, but just before the words of Christ have been heard by its intended recipient–the figure on the far left.
However, I would argue that Levi–soon to be Matthew–is indeed the one in the center of the table. I’ve created the following diagram to support my argument.
The horizontal yellow line shows what I think is the horizon line, meaning the eye-level. Interestingly enough, when I first created this diagram (inset, right), I thought the eye-level was even with that of Christ, but after looking at it more carefully, I realized it was actually lower. I suspected (wished?) it would fall in line with the eye-level of the figure in the center of the table, but have concluded that the eye-level is actually in line with Peter. I’ve drawn this conclusion for three reasons:
- The drawing of the table does suggest that we are looking down onto the surface of the table, hence we know it is above the lower third of the composition;
- We are high enough to see the tops of the heads of the figures on the left, but low enough to look up into the ellipse of the halo of Christ;
- The most decisive clue is following the lines used to create the perspectival illusion of the window shutter coming out from the wall–this distance point (the point of convergence) will always fall on the horizon line, i.e., the eye-level of the composition. It seems to me that Peter’s eye-level provides the most comfortable line upon which to place this distance point. Note: we could even use the location of this distance point to determine how far away the point-of-view is from the image, i.e., how far away the viewer should ideally stand to correctly view the image, but we can examine that another day.
Curiously, the eye-level and point-of-view of the composition do not respond to the actual position of the viewer in the chapel…but the light source in the painting does coincide with the location of the primary light source in the chapel (albeit not as naturally bright as the painting suggests when viewed by coins-in-box-powered spotlights!).
Obviously, establishing the horizon line has done little to prove the identity of Matthew.
The two green lines divide the arrangement of the figures around the table into three sections. The section of the two figures on the left are so wrapped up in their accounting that they totally ignore the entrance of Peter and Christ. In sharp contrast, the section of the two figures on the right are so taken by the presence of Peter and Christ that they have totally forgotten about the money on the table. Finally, the single figure in the middle section is both literally and figuratively “caught in the middle”. He clearly reacts with a gesturing left hand to the call of Peter and Christ, but he also refuses to detach from his present activity, as shown by his right hand which solidly rests on the table, with fingers firmly holding coins. I would suggest that the hand gestures become a metaphor for that moment of choice, or even that soul that hangs in the balance. Is this definitive proof that this figure is Matthew? Perhaps not. But it does suggest to me that this figure has greater importance than the other four around the table.
A note on the gesturing left hand: you have suggested that this might not be auto-referential act but is instead pointing to the figure on the far left. This could be true, but instead of interpreting it as, “this is the man you want”, it could also be thought of as a moment of weakness, meaning “this is the man you want (even though I know you really want me)” or even a moment of feigned misunderstanding.
Red Line A tracks the only real clue that Caravaggio gives us relative to the perspective of the whole left half of the composition, which comes not from where you would expect it (the table*) but from the chair of the youth sitting front right. And even here, there is only a small corner to give us that clue. By tracing that edge back to the horizon line, we can establish the position of the point-of-view of this composition, Red Line B (again not to be confused with the position of an actual person who views the painting from below in the chapel).
Red Line C tracks the line of the sword, which points directly to the central figure. The specific item used to convey this line and the strength with which it moves me visually through the painting suggests to me that whatever is indicated (implicated?) by this implied line is significant. I would even suggest that the sword serves not only to visually reenforce the quarry, but is also a clever way of foreshadowing his fate, as seen in the painting on the opposite wall of the chapel.
Interpretation of Who is Matthew
Marked for enlightenment by the very object that will be his end, framed by allegories of “ambivalence and acknowledgment” and responding to the presence of Peter and Christ with a gestural duality that symbolizes a destiny in the balance, I am lead to believe that the central figure at the table is Matthew.
Note: What I mistook for the perspective of the right side of the table–the magenta line–is actually the angle of the front right figure’s clothes covering the table. Yet another clever visual game.