The Calling of St. Matthew

This is Caravaggio's The Calling of St. Matthew.

I've used this painting a lot when lecturing about Unclean as the calling of St. Matthew in Matthew 9 is the thematic text for the book:
Matthew 9.9-13b
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’" 
In the painting you see Christ on the right pointing to Matthew, summoning him.

But who is Matthew?

Most think Matthew is the bearded man. It appears that he's pointing to himself as if to say "Me?" in response to Jesus's call. This theory is supported by two others works of which The Calling is a part, The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. In those paintings St. Matthew looks similar to the bearded man who is pointing to himself in The Calling.

And yet, some think Matthew is the young man on the far left of the painting, the one at the table hanging his head. The gesture of the bearded man, if you look at it, is plausibly pointing to the young man with the unspoken question now being "Him?".

If the young man is Matthew the painting is capturing the moment just before Matthew lifts his head from the table to look at Jesus.

Personally, I think the beaded guy is Matthew. And I do like his incredulity at being summoned.

But I prefer the drama of the young man being Matthew, and this being the moment right before he looks up and meets the eyes of Jesus.

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7 thoughts on “The Calling of St. Matthew”

  1. Have you seen Simon Schama's analysis of this painting (The Power of Art)? It's more about Caravaggio than Matthew, but fascinating all the same.

  2. Its the young guy... he's at the end of his tether with nothing to lose... all he needs is a nudge to throw it all away and go in a new direction...

  3. The apostolic pogonological iconography, the pointing fingers (Peter's as wells as the Sistine Jesus'), his central positioning in the group of three within the cone of light -- all suggest that it's the guy with the beard. The young chap on the left is too mesmerised by the coins he's fingering to notice anything that's going on around him, let alone the momentous event of the call of the Matthew. He is clearly a young Gordon Gekko, symbolising the idol of the USA's "one market under God".

  4. TrevorN,

    Thanks so much for this recommendation! I watched the BBC piece and it is gripping.


    I think Caravaggio, and his desire to capture the earthiness of the gospel, fits right in with the themes you've discussed in unclean.

  5. Funny that I've seen this many times and today, glancing at this post in my reader, was the first time I thought the bearded dude was pointing to someone else besides himself. I like the notion, tho', that the call is to all of them at that table - Jesus does just that, no matter our age, station or placement round a simple table. His gesture, to me, could be generic but just as compelling and we all react differently, like the fellas in this painting (and that includes the guy standing next to Big J, w/ his back to us, seeming to ask, "Him? Srsly?").

  6. If it was just down to this painting alone, I'd go 100% for the young man as Matthew. He's the one that Jesus appears to be looking at. Neither Jesus' eyes nor his gesture look like they're directed at the bearded chap, and the old man's pointing finger doesn't look like the way someone would point at themselves (the finger would be more vertical in that case). Added to that, it's the young man who's counting the money. Finally it's much more like Jesus to pick the one who doesn't see him coming... Maybe Caravaggio put the ambiguity in deliberately?

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