Caravaggio, San Luigi dei Francesi

The paintings by which the irascible artist made his name

‘There are commentators who can’t get interested in Caravaggio’, wrote the late Clive James, ‘until they find out that he killed someone’. Such scribes, James continued, are ‘only one step away from believing that every killer is Caravaggio’. This is true of course, but we should hesitate before we condemn, especially for Caravaggio’s younger admirers. We like to think of ourselves as having approached Caravaggio from the other way round, that is, art first. But if we’re being honest, it was probably the life that turned our head’s in the first place. Like that other anti-hero Byron, Caravaggio’s life has a gravitational pull. One starts by reading and admiring the work. But gradually, one finds oneself in a network petty street fights, brandished daggers, codes of honour and violent retribution.

Luckily, the art is so good and so powerful that it brings you back to it. Or rather, one can separate the art from the man and be interested in both. We should admit, though, that this is much harder with Caravaggio than it is with other artists. Caravaggio the extraordinary genius can never be fully separated from Caravaggio the street brawler. Where the danger lies is in exactly the kind of perversity highlighted by James, where the idea forms that because Caravaggio was a violent man, he could therefore depict blood and gore with greater veracity. This is the fallacy to avoid. It diminishes his genius and places the art behind the life. And when one considers the artist’s St. Matthew cycle, in the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi, one understands why the art should come first. These three paintings predate the murder on the tennis court – the hinge event of Caravaggio’s short life – by only a handful of years; two of them, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, ‘decisively changed the tradition of European art’.[1]

The Calling of St. Matthew [Image: Wikimedia Commons, VivaItalia1974]

The works were Caravaggio’s first public commission, and in size bigger than anything he had attempted before. They were intended for the chapel of the already deceased Mathieu Cointrel (Italianized Contarelli), a French cardinal. The commission was likely obtained by Cardinal del Monte, an enthusiastic patron of the arts with whom Caravaggio was living just over the road from the church at the Palazzo Madama, now home to the Italian Senate. Cointrel had paid a lot of money to obtain the chapel and gave plenty of thought to its decoration. The cardinal provided a detailed schema of exactly how he wanted his resting place to look. The chapel’s dedication would be St. Matthew, his namesake.

Two lateral paintings were required: on the left would be St. Matthew being called by Christ. On the right would be the saint’s martyrdom, a story taken not from scripture but from a compilation of stories on the lives of the saints, The Golden Legend, written in the 13th century. In this painting, Cointrel explained, would be ‘many men, women, young and old people, and children, mostly in different attitudes of prayer, and dressed according to their station and nobility’. The amount of detail required by the patron perhaps sounds strange to modern ears. It might be reasonable that Cointrel choose the topic for his chapel, but surely the artist had final say on who and what made up his work? Yet this was Counter-Reformation Rome and Cointrel’s prescription is indicative of its climate. Beneath Conitrel’s description lies the wider question that the Church had been grappling with for some half a century: what should religious art look like?

Detail from The Calling of St. Matthew [Image: Wikimedia Commons, VivaItalia1974]

This question was one of many thrown up by the spread of Protestantism across Europe in the sixteenth century. One of the giant figures of this movement, Martin Luther, had visited Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery to lodge an appeal. He had been deeply unsettled at the licentiousness and laziness he found there: Roman’s pissing and shitting in the street, the foulness of the city, its putrid stench and countless prostitutes. Disease was rife and rubbish was everywhere, as were beggars, thieves and sewage. Worse, for Luther, the Church and its priests were not above this heaving mess but a part of it. They mocked his earnest piety, were woefully ignorant and performed Mass in a desultory manner. Some even professed heretical ideas and a great many of them were riddled with venereal diseases. Nearly 500 years later, one can still feel Luther’s growing agitation and annoyance at what he saw, grimly taking in with increasing disbelief Rome and the Romans.

Luther’s ­Ninety-five theses were written just seven years later. Slowly, the Catholic Church mounted a response, and the Council of Trent was established in 1545. Its purpose was first to condemn and then to clarify. Its final session was held in 1563, thirty-five years before Caravaggio began his St. Matthews. It was at this session that the Church issued its decree on the veneration of images, a contentious subject in light of Protestant criticism. Religious art – its form and function – would come under the aegis of bishops. That aside, the prescriptions were somewhat vague. The nature of the art that could be depicted, therefore, was heavily dependent on the bishop, the artist and the patron, and their individual ideas and interpretations. As a result there was a wide discrepancy in the art produced at this time. Treatises written by bishops began to fill in the gaps left by the decree in an attempt to settle the question of depicting the divine. One influential treatise by the Bishop of Bologna can illuminate the thinking behind Caravaggio’s St. Matthew works. The purpose of religious art was ‘to convey theological subjects in a clear and unequivocal fashion and win over the viewer by appealing to the emotions’.[2]   

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529 [Image: Wikimedia Commons, GalleriX]

Caravaggio, in responding to the challenges of the Counter-Reformation, certainly manages to fulfil these criteria. In the end, he departed slightly from Cointrel’s vision whilst sticking to the larger themes outlined. He also departed from tradition by painting in oil in a city where fresco was king. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and Sistine Ceiling, along with Raphael’s Stanze, were the high watermark of fresco painting of the past century, and were thus the model by which other artists were judged. Caravaggio’s use of oil, though, was practical rather than artistic. Fresco was applied to wet, fresh plaster (fresco = fresh) and had to be completed in a hurry before the plaster dried. The fact that Caravaggio used live models in his studio and controlled the lighting to achieve his chiaroscuro effect meant that fresco simply wouldn’t do.

Caravaggio began working on the painting for the left-hand side first, The Calling of St. Matthew. It is this picture that is the most impressive of the three (and a favourite of the current Pontiff). St. Matthew is in his tax office, a grim, dimly lit room. Christ calls the saint to follow Him with a simple raising of his outstretched arm. St. Matthew is still placing a coin down on the table as he points toward himself dumbstruck. The taxpayer, with shoulders raised, is too absorbed in counting the change he is receiving from the saint to look up at these visitors. Indeed, of the five people at the table, only three look at Christ, who, along with St. Peter, wears robes in comparison to the other’s contemporary dress. This adds to the verisimilitude of the picture. Those depicted look like real people, with real lives and real worries and concerns. Nothing is idealised. And yet nothing is lost in this marriage to reality. The faithfulness to the real world that Caravaggio depicted doesn’t rob the moment of its Biblical significance. Arguably, it heightens it: it’s Caravaggio saying that this was a real event that happened to real people. And Christ is there, in a room which any viewer at the time would recognise as being of contemporary Rome.

Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro is used to great effect in the Calling, and the delicacy of Christ’s nimbus straddling the line that divides the pitch black from the shaft of light gives play to the notion of the divine emerging from the darkness. Christ is not at the centre of the picture: the focus is St. Matthew, though both are off-centre. In his second painting for the Chapel, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Caravaggio makes St. Matthew’s focus more explicit by placing the saint in the middle of his composition. In the Martyrdom, St. Matthew’s pagan killer leers into the face of the already struck saint, preparing to deliver his fatal blow. Those who had been with St. Matthew reel away from this central core of violence (including Caravaggio, who in a self-portrait looks back with pain and regret).   

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Web Gallery of Art]

Caravaggio struggled with this painting, and X-rays undertaken in the 1960s on the Martyrdom confirmed that he painted over his first attempt. The scene in his first effort included three assassins, not one, and the figures were smaller. By increasing the size of St. Matthew and getting rid of the other killers, Caravaggio could emphasise the significance of the murder and thus heighten its emotional impact. The result is a harmonious composition that is nevertheless packed with barely contained drama. Caravaggio manages to distil incredible energy into a pent-up moment without making it look stilted. The killer is on the cusp of killing St. Matthew and Caravaggio has captured this brief pause before the event. In doing so, the moment is loaded with suspense, with gravity, for what is about to happen.

For Caravaggio, St. Matthew’s common appearance was precisely the point. And if the church wanted something clear and unequivocal – well, here it was.

The last painting that Caravaggio completed for the chapel was St. Matthew and the Angel, intended for above the altar. The executors of Cointrel’s will had rejected a marble sculpture of the same scene by a Flemish artist, and, evidently impressed with Caravaggio’s two lateral paintings, had asked if he could do one more. The version that adorns the chapel’s wall today is the second Caravaggio painted. His first was rejected as being indecorous. Looking at images of the original today (destroyed in Berlin in 1945), and trying to see it through the eyes of counter-reformation churchmen, we can perhaps see why. St. Matthew holds a book as if holding a complicated piece of new technology. The saint’s uncovered legs protrude out rudely toward the viewer, his facial expression and muscular frame that of a labourer or peasant. For Caravaggio, St. Matthew’s common appearance was precisely the point. And if the church wanted something clear and unequivocal – well, here it was. This was realism. But it was too real, too coarse. St. Matthew was too undignified.  

Photograph of Caravaggio’s rejected St. Matthew and the Angel. The original was destroyed by fire in an anti-aircraft shelter in Berlin in 1945. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Laci3]

Caravaggio set to work again and created something more politically correct that lacks emotional impact. In the second version, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, the saint is imbued with a great deal more dignity. The feet are still there but are less in-your-face, and the legs are now partially covered. The only thing thrust outward toward the viewer is no longer St. Matthew’s dirty feet but a tilting stool. In this final attempt, the angel guides St. Matthew, who with his grey beard is markedly older than in Caravaggio’s first effort, with speech alone, unlike the angel’s hands-on approach in the original.

Caravaggio’s second effort, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, in situ at the Contarelli Chapel next to The Calling. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Miwok]

Caravaggio’s works were an instant success and immediately established him as the pre-eminent artist in Rome. Their vividness, clarity, use of light and dark and depiction of ordinary people were revolutionary. Not everybody was impressed, of course. The president of the Accademia di San Luca, Federico Zuccaro, saw in Caravaggio’s works echoes of the Venetian artist Giorgione. This was not a complement. Giorgione was widely held, thanks to Giorgio Vasari’s biography, to have painted not as things ought to look, but as he himself saw them. An attractive quality for us, perhaps, but we must remind ourselves that in the Rome of the late 16th/early 17th Century, with Protestantism stealing away Catholic souls, art was meant to idealise, to glorify God, Jesus and the Saints, and through this splendour demonstrate the salvation that can be found only through the Catholic Church. Caravaggio’s depiction of St. Matthew’s grubby feet were held to be an affront to this task.

In between creating the two lateral paintings and The Inspiration of St. Matthew, Caravaggio was involved in a couple of altercations that reached the courtroom. The impetuous nature of Caravaggio and his aptitude for violence is hard to square with the man who could paint so well. We imagine that as art is culture, and that because culture is the antithesis of murder and aggression, they should be anathema to the artist too. There’s enough evidence over the centuries to tell us that this isn’t true. Luckily, we have the art to fall back on. It’s there that our ‘infatuation blends into admiration, as we blend our knowledge of the creators’ failings and vicissitudes with our gratitude for what they created’.[3]


[1] Graham-Dixon 2010: 202

[2] Shütze 2015: 97

[3] James 2007: 395


Graham-Dixon, A. 2010. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. London.

James, C. 2007. Cultural Amnesia: Notes In The Margin Of My Time. London.

Shütze, S. (trans. Williams, K) 2015. Caravaggio: The Complete Works. Cologne.  

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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