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.
It is a sacred moment. In a spur, the apostle rushes to his wooden desk, grabs hold of his feather pen and turns his gaze towards the visitor. As his heart seeks the Spirit, his being transcends towards the Divine. With eye-brows raised and forehead wrinkled, the evangelist tilts his head towards the angel. The Divine being, in return, tilts his head towards Matthew coaching and dictating the holy words. Numbering Christ genealogical descent from Abraham to Joseph, the angel counts on his little fingers. With glistening eyes, the evangelist listens to him in absolute attention and amazement. Nay, he cares little about the brilliance of his handwriting rather the saint lets the Word of God absorb his mind, heart and soul.
The intensity and the fervour of the moment is reflected by the posture of the saint. Notice how the saint precariously balances on the teetering bench. In a second, it could just fall into our space, ending the divine conversation and leaving the saint groping in the dark. The positioning of his feet bears witness to his disposition. While one feet firmly rests on the earthly slab, the other soars the higher realm. The bareness of his feet reveal his humility and his child-like earnestness to receive the Word of God and serve as an instrument to others. Caravaggio, clearly, tires not in inclining our thoughtfulness to the tenderness of the hour.
Both the angel and the evangelist are covered in a whirlwind of fluttering linen. The colours of their drapery are significant. White symbolises innocence of the soul and the purity and holiness of life. White is also a colour of light, both substantially and metaphorically. The colour orange can be better understood and appreciated in the Indian context. Indian ascetics often clothe themselves in this colour also known as ‘bhagwa’ (saffron). The word ‘bhagwa’ emerged from the word ‘bhagwan’ meaning ‘God.’ Thus it signifies the presence of God and the protection of His Spirit. One could also say that the hue represents the saint ‘on fire’ on being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, Caravaggio’s Matthew is not engrossed in writing rather he shares a tangible relationship with the Divine by LISTENING. The message is simple yet powerful. It calls us to hearken the words of the hymn we often sing:
‘Listen, let your heart keep seeking
Listen to His constant speaking
Listen to the Spirit calling you.
Listen, to His inspiration
Listen to His invitation’
Listen to the Spirit calling you’
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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