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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  The Calling of St Matthew  Oil on canvas, 1599-1600  322 cm × 340 cm (127 in × 134 in)  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy
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Title: The Calling of St Matthew

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
The Calling of St Matthew
Oil on canvas, 1599-1600
322 cm × 340 cm (127 in × 134 in)
San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

The Calling of Saint Matthew is a masterpiece by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio completed in 1599-1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of the English congregation, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Over a decade before, Cardinal Matteu Contreil (in Italian, Matteo Contarelli) had left funds and specific instructions for the decoration of a chapel based on themes of his namesake. Decoration of the dome was started with frescoes by the late Mannerist artist, and one of the most popular painters in Rome at the time, Cavalier D'Arpino, Caravaggio's former employer. But with the elder painter busy with royal and papal patronage, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, Caravaggio's patron and also the prefect of the Fabbrica of St Peter's (the Vatican office for Church property), intervened to obtain for Caravaggio his first major church commission and first painting with more than a handful of figures.

The three adjacent Caravaggio canvases in the Contarelli chapel represent a decisive shift the idealising Mannerism of which d'Arpino was the last major practitioner, and the newer, more naturalistic and subject-oriented art represented by Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci: they were highly influential in their day. The Calling hangs opposite The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Between the two, at the altar, is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602). While the Martyrdom was likely the first to be started, the Calling was, by report, the first to be completed. The commission for these two lateral paintings — the Calling and the Martyrdom — is dated July 1599, and final payment was made in July 1600.

The painting depicts the story the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9): Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, "Follow me", and Matthew rose and followed him.

In some ways, most of the plebeian, nearly life-sized inhabitants of Levi's money table are the equivalent, if not modeled by those persons in other Caravaggio paintings, including Caravaggio's famous secular genre paintings of The Cardsharps (1595).

In this painting, the gloom and the canvassed window appears to situate the table indoors. Christ brings the true light to the dark space of the sitting tax-collectors. This painting records the collision of two worlds — the ineluctable power of the immortal faith, and the mundane, foppish, world of Levi. Jesus spears him with a beam of light, with an apparent effortless hand gesture he exerts an inescapable sublime gravity, with no need for wrenching worldly muscularity. Jesus' bare feet are classical simplicity in contrast with the dandified accountants; being barefoot may also symbolize holiness, as if one is on holy ground. Similarly to his treatment of Paul in the Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio chronicles the moment when a daily routine is interrupted by the miraculous. Around the man to become Matthew are either the unperceptive or unperturbed bystanders.

Caravaggio's audience would have seen the similarity between the gesture of Jesus as he points towards Matthew, and the gesture of God as he awakens Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Following the line of Christ's left arm, it seems that Matthew is being invited to follow him into the world at large. "This clear legibility, so different many Mannerist paintings, ... accounted for the work's enormous popularity."

The first two Contarelli paintings were indeed immensely popular, and placed Caravaggio at the forefront of the new naturalistic movement in Rome.
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