Caravaggio’s Controversial St. Matthew

Happy feast-day of St. Matthew! This great Apostle and Evangelist abandoned his lucrative career as a tax-collector for the Roman Empire after hearing Our Lord say only two words: “Follow Me.” the 16th century, the great Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a series of panels for a chapel dedicated to St. Matthew–but one of them caused something of an uproar. His “St. Matthew and the Angel,” completed in 1602, depicted the Evangelist writing his Gospel while an angel stood nearby and assisted him. It certainly sounds like an innocuous topic for a painting destined to hang in a Catholic chapel, but…

As you can see, St. Matthew’s tunic is awfully short, and his gnarly feet are filthy! And the angel seems a little bit too casual, as he leans in familiarly against the saint. Clergy at the church decided that this painting simply would not do, and it was rejected.

Caravaggio Matthew 2We can imagine how the artist felt about this–but he responded by producing a very different painting on the same subject. Known as “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” this version likewise shows St. Matthew writing his Gospel as an angel helps him decide what to say. But apart from the theme, the replacement painting couldn’t be more different!

Here, we see that St.  Matthew kneels on his stool, wearing clothing of a longer length. His feet are realistic, but they aren’t quite so in-your-face as those in the first work. And the angel descends from on high, keeping a respectful distance away from the evangelist as he writes.

This second painting is the one that hangs in the chapel today, and we regularly take our clients to see it. The original work, however, ended up in a museum in Berlin, where it was destroyed by a fire toward the end of World War II. It is only known today from black-and-white photos, many of which have been colorized (like the image you see above).

Sometimes the most interesting artworks are the ones which you don’t see!