When Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio completed the painting The Calling of St. Matthew in July 1600 he did so in the culture of the Counter Reformation, with a Catholic Church that sought to reach out to its parishioners through art. Throwing aside the conventions of the Renaissance and creating his own, Caravaggio worked to fulfill this mission with a realism, immediacy and a flair for the dramatic that sometimes was off putting to those around him. Yet the profound effect of his work cannot be denied and the ways in which he created would change the face of the art world.
The 16th century saw drastic change sweep through Europe all starting with the swing of a hammer. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral and began the Reformation that founded the Protestant Church. Over the next century the Roman Catholic Church and the newly emerged Protestant religion found themselves often at odds with each other and their clashes redefined the social and political landscape of Europe. In reaction to the Reformation the Catholic Church found itself waging a war within as well as without for the minds of the faithful. Thus the dawn of the 17th century saw the rise of the Counter-Reformation, a campaign spear headed by the church to bring its parishioners back into the fold and a concentrated effort to return Rome to its former glory as a holy city. Unlike their Protestant rivals the Roman Catholic church officials saw art as a tool to instruct church goers, with the ability to reach across class, education and language barriers to instill faith and sacred teachings. In Italy, this meant that the Catholic Church became the main patron of the 17th century baroque movement which focused on the dynamic, and dramatic ways artists could communicate through their art. It was during this time that Caravaggio trained and perfected his art, first in Milan then later Rome.
The Calling of St. Matthew was part of a two painting commission for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, granted to Caravaggio based on the recommendation of his previous patron Cardinal del Monte. As his first public commission from the church Caravaggio worked on The Calling of St. Matthew, along with its companion The Martyrdom of St. Mathew, from July 23, 1599 to July 4th, 1600 and the resulting paintings helped to rocket him to fame. With The Calling of St. Matthew Caravaggio chose to portray the moment of St. Matthew's salvation. Jesus enters from the right, cast mostly in shadow, and is recognizable by his wispy halo and grand gesture as he points to Levi the tax collector - the soon to be St. Matthew. For his part Levi responds by pointing to himself in surprise on the left, surrounded by his accomplices. The Calling of St. Matthew presents a biblical scene through a contemporary interpretation - though Jesus and Peter are draped in classical attire the rest of Levi's tax collectors are dressed much as the tax collectors of the time would have been. The setting itself is presented in a realistic looking tavern room and works, along with the costuming, to impress upon the viewer in Caravaggio's time that the divine could happen in every day circumstances. Both Caravaggio and the Roman Catholic church at the time wished to bridge the gap between the mundane and the divine in order to make scenes of faith more accessible to the viewer. It is even said that Caravaggio painted the light in The Calling of St. Mathew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew to echo that of the church they were to be housed in – working to bring the religious scene into the viewers space. Yet Caravaggio was unique among his contemporaries as his quest for this realism caused him to reject the Mannerism and idealization of form which was entrenched within the art world of Rome as remnants of the Renaissance. The desire to see life replicated through his paintings, whether genre scenes or religious, caused Caravaggio to paint the characters of his work directly from models he hired off the street. This along with his disdain for the masters of the Renaissance, more often then not, drew much criticism from those around him.
Another method which made Caravaggio's work unique was his use of chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting to round out the three dimensionality of the forms of his subjects. Light became a physical presence in his work, often used to cite the divine such as in The Calling of St. Matthew where the diagonal slash of light echos Christ's gesture and can be seen as visual representation of Levi's call to service. Often when painting he would use a directional light on his models to help him accurately depict the light in his work, though often in overly dramatic ways. This method allowed Caravaggio to create works in which shadows abounded and the light could be used as a tool to direct the viewers eye in a way previously unseen in the history of western art. Termed tenebrism (sometimes in a derogatory manner), this use of intense light and shadow had a profound effect on artists of the time.
Caravaggio's use of tenebrism became a hallmark of the Baroque period. It eventually moved across Europe along with his followers and went on to influence major figures in art history such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Veláquez and Murillo. His search for realism through the use of the model and directional lighting also came onto the international stage and today is common practice for artists across the globe.
Images from Wikimedia Commons
Crystal has a MA in the History of Art from Courtauld Institute of Art as well as a BFA in Art History from the Academy of Art University.