Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Caravaggio’s St Matthew

The Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, whose feast is kept today in the West, has never had much public devotion in Rome. The one notable church dedicated to him, located on the via Merulana between the Lateran Basilica and St Mary Major, was once a cardinalitial title, but by the later 18th century, it was in terrible condition. When its cardinal was transferred to a suburbicarian see in 1776, it was not given to another; the building was destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome, and never rebuilt.
The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Geobia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
He does, however, have one chapel which is very notable indeed, the place where the painter Caravaggio made his public debut in the Eternal City. In 1585, a French cardinal named Matthieu Cointerel, whose last name is italianized as “Contarelli”, died and left an endowment to decorate a chapel in honor of his name-saint within the French national church, San Luigi dei Francesi (St Louis, i.e. the IX, of the French), in the very heart of the city’s historical center. The cardinal’s executor originally hired a Flemish sculptor named Jacques Cobaert to carve a marble altarpiece of St Matthew with an angel, and the painter Giuseppe Cesari, better known as Cavaliere d’Arpino, to fresco the walls and ceiling.
Cesari was greatly in the favor of Pope Clement VIII, and after finishing the ceiling, moved on to the far grander commission of designing the mosaics inside the dome of St Peter’s basilica. Cobaert completed his statue, which was rejected in part because it did not fulfill the terms of the commission, and in part because it just wasn’t very good. (It was purchased by the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims, who had St Matthew as one of their patrons, and now sits above the altar of the right transept of the FSSP church in Rome.)
The altar of St Matthew is seen here in the background of this photo, taken during the blessing of the newest bell at Trinità dei Pellegrini last October.
Veneration of a relic of St Matthew at his altar after a Mass celebrated earlier today for the confraternity. Photo by our favorite Roman pilgrim, Agnese Bazzucchi.
As the jubilee of 1600 approached, the project, still unfinished after 15 years, took on a new urgency. San Luigi dei Francesi stands on one of the main routes by which pilgrims would enter the city, and it would not do for the French among them to see their national church so conspicuously unfinished. The Italian cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, who lived next door, then suggested that his private employee Caravaggio would be just the man for the job.
Two important matters of historical context should be mentioned here. The Pope who presided over the jubilee of 1500, Alexander VI Borgia, made his family’s name a by-word for the very lowest depths of ecclesiastical corruption. Luther’s revolt, partly provoked and partly justified by the vices which he represented, broke out in 1517. By 1525, it had already proved shockingly successful in detaching large swathes of Germany from the Faith. The hapless Clement VII Medici was only 47 at the time, and might well have lived to see the jubilee of 1550, but might just as well have wondered how much of a Church would be left to celebrate it by then. His successor Paul III, who was at once thoroughly a product of the vices his era, and one of the architects of their demise, died just before the jubilee of 1550, which opened in a period of sede vacante. Faithful clerics had much cause to tremble for the five-year reign of his successor Julius III, whose papacy was marred not only by his indifference to the urgent cause of reform, but also by scandalous stories of the very worst kind regarding his brother’s adopted son, a street-urchin inappropriately named Innocenzo. (The papal name Julius has never been used again, always a sign of a bad pontificate.)
However, by 1575, the seeds planted by Paul III, who called the Council of Trent and founded the Jesuits, and by many others, were bearing much fruit, and by 1600, the many vices and corruptions within the Church that gave so much grist to the Protestant mill were largely extirpated. And thus, while the jubilee of 1575 might be described as great collective sigh of Catholic relief, that of 1600 was to be a sort of year-long victory party for the spectacular success of the Counter-Reformation.
All of this had a particular importance for the French, whose king, Henry of Navarre, had succeeded to the throne as a Protestant, and begun his reign under a papal excommunication. He converted to Catholicism in 1593, but the political turmoil caused by his former allegiance, and the general state of religion in France, was far from over. For the French pilgrims to Rome, the jubilee of 1600 was also a sign that the Catholic, i.e., universal, religion, restored to health by the Counter-Reformation, would bring a peaceful settlement to the civil wars that had wracked their nation for decades.
This, then, is the stage on which Caravaggio made his public debut as an artist in Rome.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The first painting, The Calling of St Matthew, catches the Saint at the moment Christ enters into the customhouse and points to him, saying, “Follow me.” The mediating role of the Church and the papacy is emphasized, against the Protestant rejection of them, by including the figure of St Peter, who is not mentioned in the relevant passages of the Gospels. The customhouse is represented as if it were any Roman tavern, but note that the source of the light that bursts into the space in unseen. This is the artist’s way of telling us that it is the supernatural light of grace, which will enable Matthew to walk away from his former life and follow Jesus. This reflects a theme of the highest importance to the Catholic Church in these years: against the predestinationism of Calvin, we see that the light of God’s grace can shine on anyone, and that conversion is always a possibility for everyone.
Note also that Matthew points to himself in a gesture of doubt, as if to say, “Who, me?”, for the Church, a wise mother in her better days, knows that we all have doubts about our ability to correspond to God’s grace. In conjunction with the other paintings in the chapel, we see that even an Apostle was not free of such doubts, but was able to turn from his role as a despised tax collector to become both an evangelist and a martyr. (Caravaggio himself had and deserved a reputation as a difficult character, someone who understood well the difficulties of trying to live a life of grace.) Against the elitism of the early Protestants, we also see here the importance of each individual in God’s plan of salvation. In this particular church, this would perhaps also have reminded contemporary viewers of the importance of one man’s role, that of King Henry, in saving the Catholic faith of an entire nation.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The second painting, The Inspiration of St Matthew, stands over the altar, and was the last of the three to be completed. What we see in the chapel today is not the original version, which was rejected because it violated one of the rules of Counter-Reformation art, that things should be shown as much in accord with truth as possible. Caravaggio, not much of one for following rules generally, depicted the angel touching St Matthew’s hand, which an angel, who does not have a material body, cannot do. The noble family of the Giustiniani, who lived across the plaza from the church, intervened, purchasing the original, and convincing those in charge of the project to recommission. In the new version, the angel is conspicuously not touching the Saint, who looks heaven-ward for inspiration. He is also dressed more appropriately in the red of martyrdom, rather than the dark brown of the original version. The Gospel book which he is writing is positioned directly over the place where the Missal would be placed for the reading of the Gospel during the celebration of Mass.
A black-and-white photograph of the destroyed original version of St Matthew and the Angel. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The original version was one of six works by Caravaggio owned by the Giustinianis. When Napoleon, modern Europe’s first truly grand cultural terrorist, occupied Rome, he imposed ruinous inheritance taxes on the city’s noble families, many of whom were thus forced to sell off their painting collections. The original St Matthew and the Angel eventually found its way to Dresden, where it was destroyed during the fire-bombing of the city in World War II. No color photograph was ever taken of it.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The third painting, The Martyrdom of St Matthew, was the first to be completed and unveiled. In the original commission, Cardinal Contarelli had specified that it was to show the violence of the soldiers as they attacked St Matthew while he was celebrating Mass, a reference to the violence with which Protestantism was imposed in many parts of Europe, and the subsequent destruction of countless churches and monasteries. It was also supposed to include “suitable architectural elements”, and a crowd displaying various emotional reactions. All of this would make for a very conventional, late Mannerist work of the Counter-Reformation.
Caravaggio’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi, and like his famous namesake, he understood very well that man, and not architecture, is the protagonist of the great drama of human salvation. Note here that the architectural element is reduced to the barest possible minimum in the background, and the drama of Matthew’s death is thrust forward to fill the space. The humility of a follower of Christ is emphasized by the fact that he lies prostrate on the ground, a trend in Caravaggio’s work which would become more and more pronounced as he progressed. For us today, it is perhaps impossible to appreciate how remarkable this was at the time, to show an Apostle in the midst of his martyrdom not front and center, but lying on the ground, and to give so much prominence to the persecutor. But of course, it is from that position of humility that St Matthew reaches up to receive the palm of martyrdom from the angel above him, whom he sees and the persecutor does not. It is from that humility that he enters into the glory of his Lord.

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