Baroque and Beyond C. 1600–1850

Baroque Italy and France

What is The Calling of Saint Matthew?

The Calling of Saint Matthew (c. 1599–1600) is a highly naturalistic baroque painting by Caravaggio, one of his most famous and enigmatic. The painting depicts a dark and dingy bar within which a group of young men sit around a table counting money. Suddenly, a beam of light pierces the darkness from the right. A figure of Christ appears, His hand raised much like Adam from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Christ points to Levi, the tax collector, whose face is covered in divine light. Levi is surprised at this and seems to question Christ with a gesture that indicates, “Who, me?” Christ is calling Levi (who will become Saint Matthew) to a life of faith rather than sin.

Like other work by Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew was shocking (and popular) for its realism and for its juxtaposition of Roman street life with divine, holy figures. (One does not usually see Christ walk into a bar, for example.) The painting is a good example of Caravaggio’s use of tenebrism, an exaggerated form of chiaroscuro with sharp contrasts of dark and light. Caravaggio’s style of tenebrism was hugely popular during the baroque period, and was used by artists from Rembrandt to Zurbaran. The Calling of Saint Matthew focuses on a familiar theme for Caravaggio, that of the redemption of even the most sinful souls.

The baroque artist Caravaggio used the elements of everyday life in Rome to give his religious scenes potency during the Counter-Reformation. In The Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1602), Christ enters a dimly lit space with his hand outstretched in a manner similar to Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco from the Sistine Chapel.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Art History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App