The Calling of St Matthew: A Gem of Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro

The Calling of St Matthew is a 16th-century artwork depicting extraordinary usage of light & expressions to portray the first interaction between Christ and Saint Matthew.

The Calling of St Matthew

On the promenade of Rome, you will discover several pulchritudinous artworks that will awe you and let you reflect on your soulfulness. Among all these works, the Chapels of the Churches featured the prominent-fascinating fresco paintings. By talking to the apostles, one feels as if one can convey their prayers to them and receive their blessings for good deeds. One such astonishing painting by a renowned painter is The Calling of St Matthew, which we will evaluate here. Now, I am keeping the welcoming introduction brief as there is a fair amount to discuss in the following sections. You are about to read about one of the most influential paintings of the 17th century by Legendary artist Caravaggio. Before we start, let us quickly read through the table of content.

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist Words.

Well, one of the famous quotes by the biographer of Carravaggio says, 

“Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light. His pictures present spotlit moments of extreme and often agonized human experience. A man is decapitated in his bed-chamber, blood spurting from a deep gash in his neck. A man is assassinated on the high altar of a church. A woman is shot in the stomach with a bow and arrow at point-blank range. Caravaggio’s images freeze time but also seem to hover on the brink of their own disappearance. Faces are brightly illuminated. Details emerge from the darkness with such uncanny clarity that they might be hallucinations. Yet always the shadows encroach, the pools of blackness that threaten to obliterate all. Looking at his pictures is like looking at the world by flashes of lightning.”

― Andrew Graham-Dixon

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the composition includes Christ and Peter entering a darker interior scene from the right, while Christ points towards Matthew. Now, on the left side of the composition, there sits Matthew and his company, all busy with their jobs. The painting is a fine example of tenebrism characteristic of the mature style of Caravaggio, which makes it extraordinary. We will learn about the entire subject matter in detail in later sections.

The Calling of St Matthew Analysis
Full composition of the Calling of Saint Matthew | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. Artist.

Caravaggio, one of the most arresting European painters of the years 1600, painted Calling of the Saint Mattew. A well-known realist genre painter, Caravaggio’s best work was Gypsy Fortuneteller. With Peterzano as his teacher, he learned the art and fundamentals of painting, how to grind colours, how to prepare walls for frescos and draw without any apprenticeship under him. The earliest apprenticeship of the artist was under Giulio Mancini. There was a rumour in his later years that he killed someone and had to flee Milan, which is noted by a reliable Roman scholar, Giovan Pietro Bellori, scratched in the margin of Giovanni Baglione’s, Lives of the Painters. However, true or not, we have Caravaggio as the most acceptable painter as he taught the techniques of chiaroscuro to one entire generation.

4. Date.

The painting dates back to the year 1599.

5. Provenance.

A little provenance of the painting is that under numerous circumstances, which we will discuss later in the article, Caravaggio signed the contract on 23rd July 1599, which let him agree to paint the side pictures on the Contarelli Chapel for the 40o scubi by Giuseppe Cesari. And he had to finish his work by the end of the year. It included two paintings, Martyrdom of St. Matthew and Calling of St. Matthew. 

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition at Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium of oil on canvas. It has an extreme and unnatural use of light-dark in which dark is equivalent to the colour back, and then there are light forms of touches to show an exaggerated effect against the darkness. There is a usage of the chiaroscuro technique in the painting.

ArtistMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Year Painted1599
Dimensions322.4 cm x 340.4 cm
MediumOil on canvas
MovementItalian Baroque Art
GenreReligious Historic Painting
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The Calling of St Matthew | Fast Knowledge

The Calling of St Matthew, housed in Contarelli Chapel, is a Baroque age painting (c. 1599) by Caravaggio. Exhibiting the excellence of Chiaroscuro, the artwork represents a Biblical passage of Christ visiting with St. Peter and pointing and telling the Tax Collector Matthew to follow him.

In-Depth Description of The Calling of St Matthew.

Artist Abstract: Who Was Caravaggio?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the big enchilada in the World of artists as he abandoned the traditional art rules and embraced a new style, idealizing human and religious experiences, called the Baroque style. Born in Milan, his father was an architect for the Marchese of Caravaggio, and his mother, Lucia from the same district family. After the plague hit badly in Milan, his family moved to Caravaggio in 1576 to escape it. However, after the death of his father and mother in 1577 and 1584, he became an apprentice for four years to a Lombard painter, Simone Peterzano. He remained in the area and became familiar with the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. His first painting was The Fortune Teller, a masterpiece that helped to change Roman art for several years. However, it was sold at quite a low price, so The Cardsharps was his major masterpiece. 

Self portrait Caravaggio
Self-Portrait, Caravaggio | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

There is one more crucial piece of information that you must note about Caravaggio. He never was involved in scandals, romantic affairs, or glamour unlike other artists (except Van Gogh). However, he led an extremely notorious life, famous for brawling and his violent nature. He even had extensive and extended police trials. Although he was a violent man, his artwork inspired many and at one point made him famous in Rome. Now, that you know a bit about the artist, let us move on to the next section.

History and Background of the Artwork.

The first public commission of the Caravaggio was two paintings, Calling of St Matthew and Martyrdom of Matthew, in a chapel belonging to the heirs of the French cardinal, Mattew Cointrel. This structure was the fifth and last Chapel, which was just across the via del Salvatore from Cardinal Del Monte’s palace, Caravaggio’s home.

In September 1565, Cointrel commissioned Girolamo Muziano to paint six parts of Matthew’s story, but he never completed them. It was because, under Cointre’s instructions, the chapel could only be completed with the instructions of Virgilio Crescenzi, who died in 1592. However, in 1565, there was a contract that outlined the subjects of the paintings to be made in the chapel.

To complete the project, Creszenzi appointed a Flemish sculptor, Jacob Cobaert, to make a statuary group for the altar niche instead of a painted altarpiece. And it had to showcase the similar story of St. Matthew, where he writes with his gospel with the assistance of an angel. Upon completion of this altarpiece, Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino was commissioned to paint the remaining interiors of the chapel in 1591. He decorated with trompe l’oeil Prophets in the lower compartments and a scene from Matthew’s legendary apostolate in Ethiopia at the top. Now, these paintings were finished by June 1593, but Cesari failed to continue the frecoes althought he began to plan them. And since it was around more than thirty years that the San Luigi wasn’t completed, the priests were impatient, which let them to call Crescenzi in 1597. They claimed that it was over 4000 scudi spent on the chapel, and the walls were still not painted, which ultimately led to Caravaggio’s contract on 23 July, 1599. And finally, for the 400 scudi, he was to paint the two paintings, Calling of St. Matthew and Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

Hence, in the spring and summer of 1599, he began the actual painting, but Caravaggio was inexperienced as a large-scale painter. The painted walls were of San Luigi were close to three and a half meters wide and high as some ten feet square. The full-length figures were life-size, and the artist never painted such big paintings.

Now, Contarelli paintings show an extreme and unnatural use of light and dark, where there was an exaggerated effect against darkness.

Understanding the Meaning of the Painting.

According to its easiest interpretation, the painting represents a biblical passage. The use of symbolism is here, but I will let you know about it in the formal evaluation. Coming back to the biblical text, it says,

“And when Jesus passed on from hence, he saw a man sitting in the custom-house named Matthew; and he saith to him: follow me. And he rose up and followed him.”

The Jewish tax collector Matthew was sometimes also called Levi the toll collector. He was money mad, which is indicated by his hand still on the coins. And he wanted himself out of worldly possessions, so when Jesus called Matthew into his service while Matthew was working at the tax collector’s stand at Capernaum, he gave up his worldly possessions and took to the straight and narrow path.

Now let me take you to the next section subject matter analysis of The Calling of St Matthew.

Subject Matter and Dominant Elements.

With a heart full of affection, I welcome you to the most intriguing part of the entire article. Remember you need to be careful while studying the formal evaluation, as there are several things to consider.

The Calling of Saint Matthew painting depicts figures in shallow-dark spaces with emphatic horizontals and diagonal beams of light entering the scene. The upper right corners of the entire scene feature beams of light, catching the figures in chiaroscuro patterns. Do not get confused with the typical Italian word, ‘Chiaroscuro‘, as it simply means creating a dramatic effect by contrasts between light and dark. The counterpoise of light and dim is the supreme mover of the scene as it provides a model for the creation of art and illustrates a weighted effect.

The Calling of St Matthew on the walls of Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
The Calling of St Matthew on the walls of Contarelli Chapel | Source: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory / Flickr

Furthermore, there is a large window and prop-like furniture, which is an addition to the naturalistic style of Caravaggio. There is one more point to note the painting exhibits minimal revision. It is important to note that the figure of Peter was added later, as well as Christ’s more traditional Italian gestures with a hammered-down palm. 

The composition includes Christ and Peter entering a dark setting from the right while Matthew and his company sit around a table on the left quadrant of the canvas. Before we try to study and evaluate the composition subject-vice, let me narrate a few details. The Calling of the Matthew was a milestone in Caravaggio’s career as it was his first painting, which showcased the tenebrism characteristic of his mature style and his first historia. In a way, it is a hint of the transition from half-length portraiture to full-figure painting that he made in his career. 

Caravaggio used an old trick of placing figures around a table, just what he did in the Cardsharps painting. Further, you must note that Caravaggio grabbed the opportunity to make a moral contrast through the barefoot Christians and the dancing legs and feet of the mundane people around the table. Further, he showed the wordly men as modern with their attics, whereas showing Christ and Apostle with vaguely holy and antique robes. 

Now that I have conveyed the entire message here. Let me take you to the evaluation of each subject and element. 

1. The Light Beam.

The light comes from an invisible source, presumably some other window similar to the one above the publican’s table. Now it illuminates Matthew’s stunned face, and there is a division of light and dark which becomes the occasion for the conversion. 

Light beam of the Calling of St Matthew
Light beam in the composition

There is no coordination between the light falling from the lunette in the chapel and the light falling from the right. A spottily illuminated gloom at the right shows Christ and a disciple advancing toward the group, but Christ’s feet point forward. 

It further senses importance as it gives a symbolic weight in the context of conversion and artistic creation. It first passes through Christ’s halo and continues between his hand and the window’s central support, and finally rests on Matthew’s face.

2. The Window.

Going back to 1438, Leone Battista Alberti used to see the window as a metaphor for the painted surface in a different context, like this flat window surface, and the painted surface gives an illusion of homogeneous and logical space. The window in this painting also relates itself to Renaissance illusionism. Furthermore, it does not directly relate to landscape containment but serves as a notional entity to illustrate representational and economic issues. Also, it separates the two figural groups, distinct by posture and clothing. 

Cropped out version of the Calling of Saint Matthew painting showing the window
The window in the composition

Next, it coordinates the painting’s primary light source. The beam of focused light enters from the upper right clip to the lower right corner of the window’s frame as it rakes with the back wall. All these details are linked to the window and also give us a perfect metaphor: light as a figure for divine grace or vocation.

Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew also features dramatic light effects and a fierce contrast between light and shadow, defining a revolutionary style.

3. The Right Part of the Composition.

It shows two figures: Peter and Christ. Peter is in the foreground, while Christ is behind him. This kind of placement is because Caravaggio does not want us to show Jesus, as Peter indicates in Church. He works as a messenger of God. They both wear different attire from the left-side men, indicating a cultural difference between the Italians and the Flemish. 

Peter and Jesus Christ in the Calling of Saint Matthew painting
Peter and Christ in the frame

4. The Left Side of the Composition.

The first boy leaned forward and sat on a stool with a fascination for light. His face is blank, just like a pure reaction towards something interesting. He is unperturbed even by Jesus’ arrival over the table. 

Caravaggio Matthew
Left side of the frame

Just on the same line, there is another guy with his head tilted down towards the coins on the table. He is turned away from the beckoning light and sitted at the end of the table. Next to him is the elderly man who works as a calculator. Because the old man is busy counting coins, the boy is unaware of any visitors. His grizzled forbearance suggests that he would not care if he noticed. They both symbolize the two sides of the same coin, as in more interest towards money instead of spiritual wealth. 

Next to them, the man pointing towards the tilted head boy is St Matthew, a tax collector. He asked Jesus, 

“little ol’ me?” 

through his pointed finger.

Formally Analysing The Calling of St Matthew.

1. Line.

There is a presence of diagonal line through the incidence of light beam from the right, which senses movement in the composition. However, there is a fusion of horizontal line and vertical lines, representating three dimensional shapes and geometry in the painting. Moreover, if you look at the finger of Christ and the Matthew, there is a difference in their positions, since the finger of Christ has a slight bend toward the bench of people, whereas Matthew points horizontally, asking if it’s him. The vertical lines of windows and standing Christ represents tranquility and stability in the composition.

The Calling of St Matthew Analysis
Line Analysis, Purple (Vertical line), Pink (Diagonal Line), White dotted (Line of sight)

2. Light and Value.

There is a dark interior setting with a presence of light beam through the right of the painting. In parts of the painting, like Matthew and the sitters on bench, there is a soft contrast and a lot of light; in contrast, Christ and his apostle lie in shadow.

Light and Value of The Calling of St Matthew
Light and Value of The Calling of St Matthew |

3. Colour.

Other than the extreme contrasts between light and dark, it has a formal arrangement of light beams, hands, and windows, typically narrating studio lighting. When there was a discussion on the colour analysis of Caravaggio’s painting, the critiques referred to even the hues used with their tonality, the effects they create, the deep shadows between them, and their relation to one another. Here the colour tends darker, with the light beam symbolizing the arrival of Jesus and glory. There is the texture of different surfaces, cloth, flesh, hair, and even metal pieces with a play of light for flat and curved surfaces with distinct intensities of colours. There are effects showcased in billowing fabrics and feathers by Christ’s hand and other surface appearances.

There is unostentatious use of red and black hues commonly. Alongside, the smooth flesh of humans with muscles is also clearly visible. The golden colour hair, old vintage furniture, and even the costumes clearly display the naturalistic styles of Carravagio.

Final Words.

The Calling of St Matthew tells us about one of the stories of the bible and also fetches us a message of victory over greed. The only artists capable of making works like this are Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance artists. And indeed, I am mesmerized by them. Tell me, what aspects do you love about it? Meanwhile, I am already on another book for another piece of fantastic article.


1. Caravaggio by Howard Hibbard.

2. All the Paintings of Caravaggio by Costantino Baroni  (Editor), Anthony Firmin O’Sullivan  (Translator).

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted The Calling of St Matthew?

Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made The Calling of St Matthew in 1599 to depict an instance from the bibliography. The artwork displays extraordinary tenebrism and is the artist’s first historia.

What style is The Calling of St Matthew?


Who is Matthew in The Calling of Saint Matthew?

According to Matthew 9:9–13 (Bible) and the painting, Matthew is a Jewish tax collector, also known as Levi, the toll collector. Saint Matthew is also one of the twelve apostles whose symbol is an angel and is known as the patron saint of tax collectors and accountants in Christianity.

What does The Calling of St Matthew portray?

Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew depicts a bibliographic event where Christ appears with Saint Peter and asks Matthew, a tax collector to follow him.


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