One of the many biblical subjects that artists have depicted over the centuries has been the tax collector Matthew, being chosen by Jesus to be a disciple. My favorite rendition of that episode is the one by Caravaggio.
There is a long list of things to love about this picture, but I’ll just mention my top four in no particular order.
The first thing I love about this painting is that powerful shaft of light. The way that light floods in the room seems totally inconsistent with how the figures would be lit, but so what - it’s symbolic, yet depicted realistically. As in so many of Caravaggio’s paintings the dramatic lighting just keeps the viewer rivetted to the scene!
The next thing I love about this painting is the varied reactions of the characters to Jesus. Some guys are totally responsive, one is surprised, others totally ignore him. Quite a mix, and how very like reality, in more ways than one. You could totally see this scene playing out in your neighborhood watering hole today (save for the costumes of course).
Another thing to love about this painting is how Caravaggio pays tribute to, and borrows from, that other Michelangelo - the one who did the Sistine ceiling. The pose of the hand of Caravaggio’s Jesus is almost exactly the same as the one in Michelangelo’s “God imparting Knowledge to Adam” on the Sistine ceiling. Love it when we see great artists borrowing from another, mainly because it gives license to the rest of us lesser artists to do the same in our work!
Lastly, one of my favorite things about this picture is the fact that a few scholars are divided about just which one of these guys is actually Matthew. Most, including Andrew Graham-Dixon, believe that the pointing bearded man, third from the left, is Matthew. Others, including Professor Simon Schama, believe Matthew to be the one looking down, not yet responding to “the call” of Jesus.
I can see either one of them being Matthew. For me, the fact that no one really knows for sure, except Caravaggio, gives that much more mystique (as if more is needed) to this awesome work of art!