The Calling of St. Matthew

“The Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1600) by Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio:

When I was studying my 2nd semester of Art History at Academy of Art University in my pursuit of a career in fashion writing, this piece, by Caravaggio, was one of the hundreds of art pieces we studied, but no other piece struck me quite like this one. One huge reason was because it reminded me so much of home, and of our St. Matthew's community in National City. And so, since returning home in 2015, every year when the Feast of St. Matthew comes around, I very happily remember this painting.

One of the great masterpieces of the Baroque era of art, this painting is based on Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Here, Caravaggio captures what is called a “baroque moment” - the dramatic moment of tension just before a life-changing, transformational, awesome event occurs. In this case, it is the moment just before Matthew realizes his calling and chooses to rise and follow Jesus. 


Jesus stands at the very right edge of the painting, with just a hint of the halo traditionally used to depict sacred figures in art. With his hand languidly outstretched (a reference to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” 1508-1512), Jesus’ reach breaches the dark void that separates him (and his companion, Peter), from the group of tax collectors on the left, who regard Jesus’ gesture with varied reactions: aggression, withdrawal, disbelief, disinterest. What do you imagine your reaction to such a moment would be?

There are a few different interpretations as far as which of the men is Matthew. Some see Matthew as the young man furthest to the left, his head ducked down, so preoccupied with his task that he is yet to notice Jesus. His youth and energy might make him a good disciple. 

Others see Matthew as the older man with glasses, who is also focused on the task at hand, but perhaps his distraction comes from supervising his younger counterparts. His age, experience and wisdom might make him a good disciple.

The most common interpretation is that Matthew is the bearded man in the center of the group, who sees Jesus’ gesture, but struggles to accept that Jesus is, in fact, calling him: we see this not only in the bearded man’s face, but also in the way he immediately points to one of the other men at his side.

But perhaps the ambiguity of who Matthew actually is, is part of the beauty of the painting: any one of them could well be called. After all, the most important mark of a disciple is not how much energy or experience you have, or how even how worthy you may feel of such a calling, but rather, just a simple willingness to get up and follow Jesus.

A joyful & blessed Feast of St. Matthew to all.