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The Calling of Saint Matthew

A masterpiece that captures an encounter between God and man.
by Eric Wandrey, LC | Source:

 The Calling of Saint Matthew, a masterpiece by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, captures an encounter between God and man. It reveals a dramatic moment in which two persons meet and two separate worlds converge.  With his realistic style, Caravaggio visualizes a spiritual event and portrays the incredible dynamism of a personal epiphany. 

  Matthew, absorbed in his world of money and friends, is caught off-guard.  A ray of light illuminates the features of his surprised face.  He points towards himself to inquire if he is really the one being addressed by Christ.  He leans away from Jesus, but his legs seem poised to get up and move towards him.  We see tension and surprise before an unexpected and radical invitation.

 This is a watershed moment in which Matthew’s life teeters between two possibilities.  He must make a decision either to continue clinging to his money or to follow the beckoning Galilean.  He is a tax collector; up until this point, his life has been centered on money. A coin is stuck conspicuously in his hat, symbolizing the privileged place that money holds in his thoughts.  With his right hand, he reaches for coins. If Matthew decides to heed the call of the austerely dressed Christ, he is going to have to give up something that seems to have become central to his very identity. 

There is another element in his life opposed to the possibility of him following Christ: his friends. They surround him and even lean on him, almost protectively, forming a barrier between him and the uninvited visitor. The young man with the sword is about to get up from his stool, leaning towards Peter in a mildly aggressive manner.  To follow Christ, Matthew will have to extricate himself not only from his internal attachment to money, but also from the external pressure of his friends.

The men in the left of the painting are a reminder of Matthew’s past, and of his possible future.  They are hunched over their coins, completely oblivious to Christ.  They are so preoccupied with their money-counting that they don’t even realize they are in his presence.  Their opportunity for a new, more meaningful life fades away as they continue counting their silver.  If Matthew does not respond to Christ, he will remain a sad miser like them.

 Christ and Peter stand in stark contrast to Matthew and his companions.  Their bare feet and simple clothing clash with the flamboyant colors of the tax collectors’ fashionable, 17th century attire.  Peter’s walking staff indicates their itinerant status: they are always on the move with no place to lay their heads.  If Matthew follows Christ, it will not be easy.  He will have to leave behind his luxurious lifestyle, stable income and even the benefit of proper footwear if he is going to be counted among the followers of this poor yet captivating man.

 Matthew has to make a decision soon because Christ is on his way out the door.  Even as he calls Matthew, he is stepping away from the table, adding a sense of urgency to the moment.  Christ is calling, but not waiting.    His left hand is open and motions in the direction he is going and his right hand points dramatically towards Matthew. 

 In addition to the personal call of Matthew, this painting has a still deeper meaning.  It illustrates, through this particular Gospel scene, the new relationship between God and man made possible by Jesus Christ.  Before the coming of Christ, there existed an infinite abyss between the Creator and humanity.  It was traversable only by someone who was a part of both worlds, i.e. a God-Man.  Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, bridges this gap.  A space of darkness, situated between Christ’s group and Matthew’s group, symbolizes this great divide. The darkness is bridged by the extended hand of Christ, the Light of the World.

 Christ’s right hand is held very much like the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Ceiling.  However, it points in a different direction than Adam’s: from right to left, just as the hand of Michelangelo’s God the Father.  The combination of these two elements illustrates Christ’s two natures. He is man, the perfect man, the New Adam.  But he is also God, consubstantial with the Father.  What Christ is doing in this painting is analogous to the creative action of God the Father.  In Michelangelo’s work, God the Father is about to give life to the physically inert body of Adam.  In Caravaggio’s work, Christ is about to give spiritual life to the spiritually empty Matthew.  He is about to elevate him from his superficial tax-collecting existence to the fulfilling life of an apostle. 

 This masterpiece is an iconic depiction of the human-divine encounter that is played out at some point in the lives of all individuals.  When the divine reaches out to the human, there is always a moment of decision such as this.  God unexpectedly breaks into the life of the called, calling him to a closer relationship with himself.  The called individual discovers, in an overwhelming instant of revelation, that the divine desires him. But to be open to God, he must escape from what Pope Benedict called in Spe Salvi the prison of the “I.” He feels the attraction of the divine together with the tug of his worldly possessions, friends, or whatever else he clutches for security.    What happens after this initial moment of the call is different for every individual.  In the case of Matthew, we know what happens – he left everything and followed Christ.  

Through Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, God works personally and intimately in the lives of every human being.  God calls everyone to fulfill a very particular mission that only the called individual can fulfill and through which the individual will reach his fulfillment as a human being.  The vocation is a unique and intimate reality experienced differently by everyone. Every human being, in some way or another, must face such a moment of decision: he will either leave his comfort zone or stay hunched over his personal comforts, ignoring the Divine Caller. 

 For those who choose to heed the call, the reward is incredible.  They are offered what was offered to Matthew: a privileged relationship with the Son of God and eternity with him in heaven!

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