QUATREFOIL: The Inspiration of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (1602)

 The word ‘Gospel’ represents a record of Christ deeds and His life. It is equivalent to the Greek word ‘euangelion’ which translates as ‘good news’. The origins of this word can be traced to the Romans who designated the date of Caesar’s birth as ‘euangelion’ (good news) for the whole world. The four evangelists to announce the Good News of Christ in the Bible are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Inspired by the Revelation of St. John the Evangelist (4: 6 – 7) and the visions of Ezekiel (1: 5 -14), the Early Christian artist often depicted each gospel writer with a winged figure. Although subject to varied interpretation, St. Jerome envisioned the man (Matthew) as a representative of the Incarnation, the lion (Mark) a representative of the Resurrection, the bull (Luke) a representative of the Passion and the eagle (John) as a representative of the Ascension.

In this series titled ‘Quatrefoil’ through art and its interpretation we will explore the lives of the Gospel writers and their sources of inspiration.

The first painting in consideration is titled ‘The Inspiration of St. Matthew’. Executed by the great Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, this work of art was commissioned by Cardinal Contarelli for the Chapel bearing his name in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

True to Caravaggio’s style, the painting is devoid of detail. No landscape, no architecture, no bystanders. Caravaggio strips out the non-essentials to draw us to the heart of moment. His monumental protagonists are life-like. They include: the evangelist Matthew, the divine angel and of course Caravaggio’s secret player – LIGHT.

The room is gripped in absolute darkness. One can almost picture the saint pacing the room, storming heavens, seeking inspiration and wisdom. As the night falls still, in swoops the angel accompanied by a mysterious light that illuminates the unseen. The descending angel’s body creates a curve which progresses in the opposite direction through the figure of the saint, thus giving the composition a serpentine movement.

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