As Jesus passed on from there [Capernaum], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Mt 9:9).
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew is pictured above. It was painted in 1600 and hangs in the Contarelli chapel of Rome’s Church of San Luigi de Francesi. Pope Francis has said that he often went to the church as a young man to contemplate the painting.
Is St. Matthew the man with the black hat pointing with a look of surprise on his face as if saying “Who, me?”, or the younger looking man with his head still down counting the coins? We do not know for sure, although as far as I know most think it is the man pointing. Perhaps the ambiguity is a way that Caravaggio puts the observer’s focus more on the Caller than the called. Jesus Christ is the person all the way to the right. Jesus has an impressive look of determination on his face, certain as to who He is calling and able almost to bring light down upon this person and into this gathering of tax collectors. The light travels from right to left in the same direction as Christ extending out his hand. The light emerges from just above Jesus and seems to be a powerful extension of Him.
We can see a lot of physical movement in the painting. Look at Christ’s feet; they are already turned away and he is walking to his next destination. The young man directly to the left of St. Peter appears almost to be getting up in a mildly aggressive manner drawing his sword to stop Jesus. The scene has pointing, facial movements, and probably conversation.
But there is another more important type of movement in the painting: spiritual movement. Christ in his will wants this man to follow Him. And St. Matthew is undergoing movement in his heart. Will he change his ways, leave his money behind, get up and follow Him? Will He allow this man of light to cleanse him of his sins? Will he answer the call to leave his life behind and become not just a disciple but also an Apostle, a leader in this man’s Church? Caravaggio beautifully paints this type of movement too.
What an amazing, powerful scene. There is so much happening here. There are movements of the body masterfully depicted and more importantly movements of the heart. St. Matthew answers the call and follows Jesus, giving his entire life to Him. May we follow his example and hastily get up from our tables to follow as well.