source: Sandro Magister en www.chiesa.espressonline.it
ROME, August 1, 2012 – The unconventional interpretation of the "Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio presented by TV 2000, the channel of the Italian bishops, and picked up by www.chiesa, has made a tremendous stir:
> The Gospel According to Caravaggio
In the traditional interpretation, Matthew is the mature man with the beard in the center of the group.
In the new interpretation proposed by art historian Sara Magister in the broadcast "La Domenica con Benedetto XVI. Arte, parola, musica" aired on Saturday, July 14 on TV 2000, Matthew is instead the young man with his head bowed, collecting money at the far end of the table.
Among those who have contested this new interpretation, and defend the validity of the traditional one, is Elizabeth Lev.
An art historian herself, Elizabeth Lev teaches in Rome, at two American universities: Duquesne University and the University of St. Thomas. Her latest book, published in Boston in 2011, "The Tigress of Forlì," is a fascinating profile of Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici, one of the protagonists of the Italian Renaissance. She is the daughter of Mary Ann Glendon, a jurist and professor at Harvard, ambassador of the United States to the Holy See from 2007 to 2009 and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Sara Magister also teaches art at an American university in Rome, the Lorenzo de' Medici. Both of them lead tours of the artistic marvels of the city of the popes, not last among them the masterpiece of Caravaggio over which they are contending.
Elizabeth Lev follows and appreciates the broadcast of TV 2000 that every Saturday presents the Sunday Mass by combining selected passages of the homilies of Benedict XVI with images of works of art and pieces of Gregorian chant and polyphony related to the theme. She calls it "a harmonious blend of art and faith."
But when she saw Sara Magister propose, with regard to the calling of the apostles that was the central theme of the Mass of Sunday, July 15, that new interpretation of the "Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio, she thought it was fitting to reply.
Her reply, written for the international agency Zenit, is reproduced below. And it is also of significant interest for how it reconstructs the events that accompanied the creation of the painting, in Rome of the holy year of 1600.
Immediately after it follows the counter-reply of Sara Magister, with various additional arguments in support of her interpretation with respect to the summarized arguments of the first presentation on TV 2000 and www.chiesa.
A discussion that is anything but academic. On the contrary, more pertinent than ever to the upcoming Year of Faith proclaimed by Benedict XVI.
WHY SAINT MATTHEW IS THE MATURE MAN IN THE CENTER
by Elizabeth Lev
Last week, a new interpretation of what might be Caravaggio’s most famous painting, "The Calling of St Matthew," gave Romans a chance to think about an old favorite in a new light. Dr Sara Magister, an art historian and collaborator with the Vatican Museums didactic office, proposes that the figure of St Matthew in the painting is not the older man who points to himself, as is traditionally accepted, but actually the younger figure bent over his coins at the leftmost end of the table.
While a little shake up is always good for any discipline, and a new perspective often makes for great awakenings, I would like to look at Dr Magister’s analysis through the “three Ps” of art history – public, precedent and practice.
The discipline of art history takes into account the intended viewers – the artist’s public – when navigating the treacherous waters of iconography. Generally speaking, a message that cannot be correctly interpreted until 400 years after the fact, would be a sign of an unsuccessful painting.
It is significant, therefore, that viewers in Caravaggio’s own age identified St Matthew as the man in the center, this including Caravaggio’s biographer Giovanni Bellori. Later artists who studied and drew inspiration from this work by the Lombard master also assumed that Matthew was the oldest of the group. A version by Hendrick Terbrugghen from 1621, obviously inspired by Caravaggio’s 1599 work, features a gray-haired Matthew pointing to himself. The same goes for Bernardo Strozzi, Cappuchin friar and painter, who tackled the subject in 1620.
More probative than the reactions of artists, however, is the principal intended audience of the work. "The Calling of St Matthew” was executed for the French national church in Rome of Saint Louis des Français, dedicated to Louis IX, King of France and Catholic saint.
The commission specified that the canvas, along with its pendant, “The Martyrdom of St Matthew,” would have to be completed by the Jubilee Year of 1600. The French church not only served the Francophone community in Rome, but was poised upon the principal artery for pilgrims coming in from the northern gate of Rome, Piazza del Popolo, where about 80% of visitors entered the city in that era since it was en route to St Peter’s Basilica. The Jubilee year of 1600 saw over 300,000 pilgrims come to Rome in an extravaganza of Masses, homilies and papal events, including 28,000 Masses in St Peter’s Basilica alone.
The church of Saint Louis (or San Luigi, as the Italians call it) had a special apostolate during 1600. In her book, “Caravaggio: A Life,” art historian Helen Langdon reminds readers that Henry IV of Navarre, raised a Huguenot, converted to Catholicism in 1594, and married Maria de Medici in 1600, drawing the wayward king back into the papal fold. With this extraordinary example of a monarch “seeing the light,” the church of San Luigi was ideally suited for the task of preaching conversion sermons for the duration of the Jubilee year.
Caravaggio’s commission, secured for him by Francesco Maria del Monte, the Medici cardinal in Rome, was part of Pope Clement VIII’s plan to preach with both words and images. The older Matthew, a successful “businessman” in the prime of life, who has worked long years for his clothes, position and riches, offered a powerful example for the faithful of how difficult it is to give up worldly vanities.
Dr Magister quotes Pope Benedict on the “scandal” of the apostle’s sinfulness, but the Holy Father’s catechesis on St. Matthew from August 30, 2006 is perhaps more illuminating. “For him it meant leaving everything,” explained the Pope, “especially what guaranteed him a reliable source of income, even if it was often unfair and dishonorable.” The concerns of steady income increase with age, and for the older man, getting up from that table meant there would be no going back.
Keeping in mind the proximity of the commission to the momentous conversion of the French King, it is perhaps relevant that Henry IV was 47 in 1600 and his portrait shows a well-dressed man with a graying beard. Holy Years are an invitation to change one’s life, to become new again, despite the weight of years of sinfulness. Magister herself eloquently alludes to this aspect in her analysis, writing, “calling is a new creation: from an old man is literally born a new man.” The promise of renewal is arguably the most important message that the pilgrims need to receive.
Art history also looks to precedent when interpreting a work. While Caravaggio made much of his disdain for earlier masters, whether the Greeks or the Florentines, his work reveals a great deal of sly emulation of great artists. Matthew’s startled reaction harks back to and evokes literary and artistic precedents, where the most celebrated heroes from Odysseus to Moses balked at being chosen for great deeds.
In art, the theme of the disconcerting arrival of the supernatural has numerous precedents, from the awkward appearance of angels in Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel, to the startled Marys in Botticelli, Flippo Lippi e Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciations, to Caravaggio’s contemporary and rival, Annibale Carracci’s "Three Marys at the Tomb" from 1598, where one of the Marys, shocked by the apparition of the angel, lays her fingers over her chest. The grand gesture, as it is called in baroque art, is designed to draw attention to a central event or figure.
The seventeenth century, preoccupied with the supernatural world of angels, divine intercession and forces of evil, used art to remind viewers that God is always calling, should we have the eyes, ears and hearts to listen.
Finally, the practice of the artist is another essential factor in the understanding of a work of art. Patterns and rhythms in an artist’s work often shed light on meaning.
Dr. Magister proposes that St. Matthew is still absorbed in counting money, and “soon he will raise his eyes and become aware of the call of his new master.” While Michelangelo Buonarotti often portrayed the moment before an event – David before slaying Goliath, Adam before the divine spark – this was not the way of Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio.
Caravaggio’s most important characteristic, besides his dramatic use of light, was his penchant for capturing the culminating instant on canvas. At the height of his Roman career, Caravaggio made his mark by freezing the most dramatic moment with his brush. In the contemporary painting he executed for Santa Maria del Popolo, he shows Saul at the very moment of his conversion, lying on the ground, arms open and bathed in light. His unforgettable "Judith and Holofernes" puts the viewer in the midst of a beheading. The arrest of Christ has Judas kissing the Lord; Abraham's knife is at Isaac’s throat as the angel stays his hand; Thomas' finger is probing Christ’s wound – all these works bring the viewer to the breathtaking climactic moment of the scene.
This being his trademark, it seems unlikely that Caravaggio in this, his debut and first public commission, would employ dramatic light, and grand gesture for an event that hasn’t happened yet.
Caravaggio’s life story tells us that he was anything but a patient man, not one to savor the story as it unfolded, but caught up in the action of the moment. The amazed Matthew, his body recoiling while his eyes open to the light of Christ, captured at the moment his entire world is turned upside down, is far more in tune with Caravaggio’s method of shock and awe.
Magister argues that the finger of Matthew points not at himself but towards the young man with the bent head, and indeed the gesture is hard to read as the hand is bent at a slight angle. However, the answer can be found in Caravaggio’s artistic practice. Draftsmanship was not Caravaggio-s forte. He rarely drew, if at all, resulting in frequent problems with foreshortening. Looking at "The Martyrdom of St Matthew" across the chapel, the reclining young man is impossibly positioned, while in the "Conversion of Saul" the body of the saint ends abruptly at the knees. The eyes of St Thomas in "Doubting Thomas" seem to look outwards, and the list goes on and on. Many art historians suggest that these errors are intentional, meant to draw us into a deeper interpretation, but again, his contemporaries, from Ludovico Carracci to Bellori, attributed it to lack of drawing skill.
The "Calling of St Matthew" has always seemed to this art historian to be like an illustration of the parable of the farmer planting seeds from Mark 4:3-8. There Jesus narrates the story of a farmer going out to sow seed. Some of the seed falls on a footpath, other seed on shallow soil with underlying rock, and still more among thorns that grow up and choked out the tender plants. Some seed, finally, falls on fertile soil, and sprouts, grows, and yields an abundant harvest.
Jesus enters the tavern of the tax collectors sowing his light of revelation. Two men never look up, too taken with the pleasures of this world – here the seed will never sprout. Two more young men are drawn to the light, fascinated and impulsive, and their interest sprouts quickly, though the soil is likely shallow – this is just another passing fad for them. Matthew, in the center, is the fertile soil, where the seed will produce the greatest crop, through his witness and through his Gospel.
We can be grateful to anyone who inspires us to look at old masterpieces with new eyes. The inner truths they communicate are always worthy of meditation, study and awe.
WHY MATTHEW IS THE YOUNG MAN AT THE HEAD OF THE TABLE
by Sara Magister
I thank my colleague and friend Elizabeth Lev, among other things the author of a splendid book about Caterina Sforza de’ Medici, for her comments on the "unconventional" interpretation of the "Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio that I proposed on TV 2000. Her analysis follows a methodology that is more than correct: in considering the interpretation of an older work, account must be taken of the public, of the iconographic tradition, of the usual practice of a painter. But these considerations must be preceded above all by the analytical interpretation of the most substantial element in our possession: the work itself.
This must be observed in the first place in its visible details and in its compositional function. Then it must be considered in the context of the sources (the Gospel), the patrons (the Contarelli family), and the very strict rules regulating the production of public religious works at the time of its realization in 1600.
Only in a second phase can one move on to evaluate the impact it had on the public of artists and art critics, including at a distance of many years, and to a further and more in-depth analysis of the symbolic, theological, and philosophical meanings of the work.
This is not the place to analyze in detail, with the proper scientific methodology, such a complex work and body of criticism. Nonetheless, a few first considerations can be advanced.
First of all, at the time of Caravaggio, art produced to be placed in churches was strictly controlled by the Church itself. Nothing was permitted that would not be in keeping with the sacred texts, with a real representation of these, with decorum and tradition. If the works of Caravaggio are still there, made, as Elizabeth Lev rightly emphasizes, for the Jubilee and for a church located on one of the main arteries of pilgrimage in the Rome of the 17th century, this means that they correspond fully to all of these requirements.
What do the Gospels say about the calling of Matthew? Three of them speak of it: Matthew (9:9), Mark (2:15-17), and Luke (5:29-32). Matthew is a publican seated at his bench collecting taxes; Jesus sees him and asks him to follow him. The response is immediate: Matthew leaves everything and follows his new Master.
Let's observe how the work recounts the words of the Gospels in images. Here is a table, on it an inkwell, a pen, a sack, a book: the ledger of the creditors. There are a few persons around it. On the far left side is a young man collecting money, a man with a beard giving it to him, an elderly man in furs watching to see that everything is done by the rules. On the other side of the composition, Christ and Peter have just entered the scene.
All of this is probably taking place outdoors, in a courtyard. The weather and the background are dark, gloomy. A beam of soft, glowing light descends from above. This corresponds to the natural light that comes through the window of the chapel where the work is still located today.
But there is another light, much more intense, tangible, clear and dramatic, that illuminates the scene. It is a blade of light that slices cleanly through the darkness of the atmosphere, and comes from the area of the altar in the chapel. This, naturally, is very significant: the light that allows us to interpret what is happening in all of its significance is not the natural light, but the grace of God that suddenly bursts into human history, forcing us to make a choice. This interpretation of the light in paintings of religious subjects by Caravaggio is now accepted as certain by all art historians.
But who is Matthew? Is he the man with the beard who seems to be pointing to himself, as identified by Giovan Pietro Bellori in his life of Caravaggio published more than seventy years after the realization of the work?
Here are the words of Bellori:
"Dal lato destro l’altare vi è Cristo che chiama San Matteo all’apostolato, ritrattevi alcune teste al naturale, tra le quali il Santo lasciando di contar le monete, con una mano al petto, si volge al Signore; ed appresso un vecchio si pone gli occhiali al naso, riguardando un giovine che tira a sé quelle monete assiso nell’angolo della tavola […] Il componimento e li moti però non sono sufficienti all’istoria […] e l’oscurità della cappella e del colore tolgono questi due quadri alla vista” (Giovan Pietro Bellori, "Vite dei Pittori, Scultori ed Architetti Moderni Descritte da Gio. Pietro Bellorii" (1672), I, Pisa 1821, pp. 212-213).
So according to Bellori, Matthew is the bearded man with his hand on his chest, counting the money that the young man next to him is collecting. But there is an evident contradiction between interpretation and action. Matthew, as we know from the Gospels, is the one collecting the tax money. How can Bellori identify Matthew as the person who he himself self admits is giving, and not receiving, the money, this latter being the young man hunched over at the end of the table? On the other hand, by his own admission, the interpretation of the work was not facilitated by the darkness of the chapel. It is by no means to be ruled out that Bellori was unable to interpret the work correctly, lacking the assistance of what is its the true and proper guide to interpretation: the light that illuminates all the human and inanimate details of the scene.
Moreover, Bellori's classical formation hardly predisposed him to accept, and therefore to consider attentively, the naturalistic power of Caravaggesque light.
So is everything that Bellori says, several decades after the death of Caravaggio, unquestionably correct and to be taken at face value? When it comes to much of the information that he gives about the life and artistic practice of Caravaggio, it has in fact been demonstrated, with documents at hand, that this is often seriously inexact.
But let's return to analyzing the work.
If Matthew is the gentleman with the beard and pointing finger, then why is his face so different from the other two works by Caravaggio present in the Contarelli chapel, which depict Matthew while he is writing the Gospel and while he is undergoing martyrdom? This alone should be enough to raise a few doubts over the identity of the bearded man in the episode of the calling.
And again. In the Gospels, Matthew is the one who is collecting the taxes. But who, in the painting by Caravaggio, is the one who is gathering the money? There is only one among the many present. Bellori himself indicates him for us: he is the young man hunched over, seated at the end of the table and with one hand taking, or better clutching, and with the other greedily holding a sack, which moreover the artistic tradition indicates as the usual attribute of the saint, a negative symbol of his greed prior to his calling.
Besides, the bearded man in question is pointing with one hand, but with the other is giving money to the young man. Considering the adherence of works of art to the sacred events and texts that was required at the time, even a pure and simple analysis of what is happening should be enough to refute the hypothesis of identifying Matthew with the figure with the pointing finger.
Are there in this work references to the artistic tradition, a fundamental point of departure for every painter? Well known is the citation of the creation of Adam by Michelangelo, in the hand of Jesus pointing to the future apostle. But there are also citations of another great master: Leonardo da Vinci. In the Last Supper by Leonardo in Milan (the city where the young Caravaggio had done his apprenticeship), Matthew is depicted as young, even though the tradition had more often represented him as middle-aged.
Caravaggio (or his patron) would soon take the same "liberty" with respect to the artistic tradition in the work that narrates the conversion of Saint Paul in the Cerasi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, depicting the young saint as beardless and not, as tradition would have him, bearded and in middle age.
And even Michelangelo had depicted Christ the Judge as young, instead of traditionally mature, in his towering Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
The artists who, twenty years after Caravaggio, wanted to identify Matthew with the bearded figure who seems to be pointing to himself, perhaps did so because the mature and bearded image of Matthew was much more traditional and automatically comprehensible to most, rather than that of a young Matthew as depicted by Caravaggio in the Contarelli work.
Also in the Last Supper by Leonardo, the principal model for all of the Lombard artists, the gesture of the apostles who are pointing to themselves is much different from that of Caravaggio's bearded man. Caravaggio knew very well to whom to look, to learn to depict hands in foreshortening and clearly eloquent gestures. And the consummate quality of his technique and composition confirm this for us.
In fact, it has recently been demonstrated that the studies of light conducted by Caravaggio for the painting of the works of the Contarelli chapel were very careful and sophisticated, and also that a painter of the highest technical quality such as he was knew very well how to depict, without errors, the foreshortening required by this, from his very first youthful production (in recent days a box has been discovered containing youthful sketches and works by Caravaggio, which could confirm his mastery in the field of drawing as well as in that of color).
And it is precisely the attentive observation of the beam of light that runs along the upper portion of the pointing finger of the bearded man that makes us understand that that finger is pointed not at himself, but at the one beside him. The light is not cut off or reduced at the tip of the finger, as it would be in a gesture toward oneself, but remains clear and straight all the way to the end of the digit. In a detail that nonetheless is so subtle and refined that it can be perceived clearly only by observing the work in its original (and well illuminated, unlike the darkness about which Bellori complains), and that no photograph can help to interpret correctly.
And then it is necessary to consider the laws of the logic of the composition, in relation to the action depicted. The table is rectangular. Jesus enters and stops at the end of the table. He points. Where is he looking? His eyes are in shadow. But the light that falls on his cheek and nose tell us that Jesus is looking at the one in front of him, and not at the one to his side. Because Jesus is looking at and calling to himself precisely the young man sitting at the other end of the table and collecting the money: Matthew.
The scene truly depicts the culminating moment of the calling of Matthew. The most dramatic and significant moment, which once again the religious sensibility of Caravaggio fully grasps. Matthew must choose between the power of money and the poor but authentic life of the apostles of Jesus (there is a significant difference in the clothing, especially in the colors, of the figures around the table and the Jesus-Peter pair).
The light strikes him, the hand of God points to him. His choice now is whether to raise his head to respond to the call of Christ, or to keep it on the money that he is greedily clutching on the table. It is a choice that obliges us to take personal responsibility, that of Matthew. It is a calling away from human logic, that of Jesus, which the other diligent figures around him cannot fully understand and accept.