O Taste And See

A Meditation on Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew Juliet Benner Part 10 of 20

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The Christian spiritual journey is a response to God’s invitation to allow grace to transform us. Following the way of Christ, we live the Christian mystery and increasingly reflect the image of God. In his book Surrender to Love, David Benner describes the beginning of this journey as “an encounter with the living God. This encounter may be gradual or it may be sudden. But it will always involve a turning and an awakening.” The Bible records many conversions or awakenings where God is met in a spectacular way. Generally, however, most involve a non-dramatic first encounter and recurring acts of returning.

Turning toward God suggests that God is the one who has made the first move. It is God who always takes the initiative—who first notices us, lays eyes of love on us, calls us by name, and invites us to join in the unitive fellowship of the Trinity. Our response to this invitation will be but a first step on a lifelong transformational journey of awakening and coming to know God experientially. It is journey of becoming our true self-in-Christ— a journey toward union with God.

The Call and Awakening of St. Matthew

Matthew’s first encounter with Jesus is a story that tells us about the beginning steps of the transformational journey. The account of Jesus’ calling of him is recorded in three of the Gospels. The books of Matthew and Mark describe this event in concise, direct language. There are no elaborations, no added details, simply the statement that Matthew rose and followed. Luke’s description is similarly plain, but adds that Matthew left everything behind and immediately followed Jesus.

Take some time to read the story as it is recorded in Luke 5: 27–32. Allow yourself to daydream as you read it, placing yourself imaginatively in the scene. Be there in the scene and experience it with all of your senses fully alert. Note what is happening; attend to sounds, smells, sights, and actions.

Now take some time to look carefully at the cover art, The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.1 This painting is Caravaggio’s meditation on this simple story of a man called Levi sitting in his tax office while Jesus passes by, sees him, and calls him to follow. Caravaggio’s interpretation of this story is rich and poignant, the details he includes being full of profound spiritual significance. A close look and further meditation on the painting will enlarge our understanding of the story and of the transformational journey.

Caravaggio’s Meditation

The Calling of St. Matthew2 occupies an entire wall of the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. It measures ten and a half feet by eleven feet. The other two walls of the chapel depict scenes of Matthew writing his Gospel, and his martyrdom. The works are large, with life-size figures. They fill the small chapel in which they are housed and captivate one’s attention. They powerfully engage the viewer with the force of their incredible realism and the artist’s dramatic juxtaposition of light and dark.

Unlike many of our preconceived images of this scene, Caravaggio places the action indoors. The painting is divided into two unequal halves. The left half is contained within a horizontal rectangle, while the right is held in a vertical one. Both are bridged and unified by Jesus’ outstretched hand, which reaches across the space between them. On the left is a group of five men seated at a table dressed in the contemporary European style of Caravaggio’s time. On the right are two other men, one of them Jesus, who enter the darkened room. They are clothed in the attire of Jesus’ day. Above them, forming the dividing line between the two halves, is a large, dominant window. Slicing diagonally and dramatically across the canvas is a powerful beam of light that illuminates the faces and figures of those at the table. The figures in the painting show us different ways of responding to this call to transformation.

As you look at the painting, what is the first thing that catches your eye? Perhaps it is the beam of light, or maybe it is Jesus’ hand, the window, the group of men at the table on the left, or the two men on the right of the painting. Whatever it is, pause for a moment really to look and reflect, and then see where this first impression takes you. (Sometimes using a magnifying glass to look closely at the painting is helpful.)

The dramatic use of light and dark for Caravaggio was more than just an artistic technique or device. He used chiaroscuro to convey spiritual truths that speak of interior, spiritual darkness and inner light. Notice that the scene takes place in a darkened room. The light that enters does not come from the prominent window but from some source outside—an indication this is no ordinary light. It is the supernatural light of God’s very presence. This is a moment of tremendous spiritual significance. It is a moment of transformation. The light pierces the darkness of the room and brings into focus the faces of the people around the table.

Let us look more carefully at this left side of the painting. Remember what happened before this moment. Jesus has noticed the tax collector and has called out to him to follow. Matthew sits with four other people. His right hand is suspended over the table as he holds some of the money that is being counted. He is recording his day’s take. With his left hand, he points to himself with his index finger. Or perhaps it points to the two persons on his right who are leaning over the table. Matthew may be wondering if Jesus really means him or these two beside him. He seems to be astonished that God’s light and love would rest on him, and one can almost hear him asking the question, “Who, me? Is it I?”

Remember who Matthew was—a tax collector, a person known to cheat and skim off tax money for his own gain. He was considered to be an outcast in his culture and relegated to the edges of society along with lepers and prostitutes—unloved, unlovely, and unwholesome. Yet here he was with his friends being invited to follow Jesus. He is being offered a chance to find a new identity as one who is beloved in Christ. He is being called to a transformational journey toward union with God.

Matthew’s questioning face, entirely lit by the holy light, looks toward Jesus. His gaze is direct and open. The riveting objects of Matthew’s attention are Jesus and his voice. The outstretched hand of Jesus just below the window, emphasized by a red sleeve, is also lit by that light. It has a commanding presence that summons Matthew to a new life where he is loved and accepted just as he is.

Jesus might have passed by the tax office often and seen Matthew at his work, maybe even knew him by name. He definitely would have known how totally unacceptable he was in his society. Yet Jesus does the extraordinary in breaking from this tradition. He ignores the conventions of his day that demand avoidance of people such as Matthew. He simply calls him and invites him to follow. If you look really closely, you may see that Jesus’ feet are already turned in the direction that will take him out of the room and in the direction Matthew is being called to follow.

At the frozen moment captured in this painting, Matthew has not yet obeyed that call. He has just heard Jesus calling his name and inviting him to follow. It is a moment of decision as he sits in the glare of light that shows him for who he really is. It is a light that exposes his weaknesses and sin. The darkness of the room, which symbolizes the internal darkness of Matthew’s soul, is pierced by the light of Holy Presence. His soul is laid bare by the brightness of Glory. He comes face to face with himself and with Jesus, and now must make the choice to follow or not.

Switch your attention for a moment to the right side of the painting. Jesus stands with Peter, one who has already been called and has decided to follow. The artist places Jesus in the darkest side of the painting and behind the disciple. He is not easy to find in the darkness. There is a faint halo around his head to ensure that we do not miss who he is. His hand reaches out from the darkness and points authoritatively and decisively toward Matthew. Yet it is also a gentle hand—a hand offering life and forgiveness. It is an inviting hand. Jesus never calls us with force or coercively. His face in the half-light looks at the tax collector with compassion and love.

On this first step of his transformational journey, Matthew begins to know what unconditional love is. He knows how greedy and duplicitous his heart has been in the way he lived and earned his living. He seems to be aware of his need for transformation. Perhaps he begins to realize that his self-worth really comes from a life lived in dependence on God. Now love and life are offered to him without any questions asked. He is being offered unconditional love and an opportunity to become a new person. He is being asked to move from darkness into the light of God’s love. This love is the only thing that can bring transformation.

New Zealand poet Kathy Hughes expresses well what Matthew must have experienced in his call to light and life.

 

Love with No Edges

Love given free of charge,
no strings attached, no puppets.
Acceptance as is,
no judgment, no prosecution.
Love with no edges, a wide open plain.
No accusations
to knock me down.
Just love warmly leading into the sun
to freedom, laughter and life.

Hearing and Responding

But what if Matthew had ignored or missed the voice of Jesus? Look at the two figures at the far left of the painting. One sits totally engrossed in something on the table. If we look really closely, we see he is counting some coins on the table. On the table, we see also a pen in an inkwell and a ledger for recording the day’s payments. Over this seated figure another man leans over as he adjusts his spectacles to get a closer look at the profits. He seems to be the oldest in the group. Both are so absorbed in their business that they don’t even notice Jesus has entered the room. They seem not even to notice that Matthew is being called. They miss Jesus entirely and miss their opportunity to be also invited to the transformational journey.

The two younger men on Matthew’s left are curious at this interruption in their affairs. One leans forward and seems to be engaged in conversation with Peter. The youngest one leans on Matthew and appears hesitant, looking dubiously on, seeming to pull back slightly from the pair who have entered his space, unsure of what this encounter may mean for him. He and his companion on the bench notice the cause of this interruption, become interested, and begin to be engaged. The choice is offered to them too, through the invitation of the disciple whose hand is similarly stretched out to them. The one with his back to us sits straddled on a bench with his sword diagonally pointing toward Matthew—another way to identify Matthew in the painting. Could his posture indicate he is interested enough that he is about to make a decision? One hand rests on the table while the other is on the bench, making him appear to be getting ready to rise up and follow. He straddles the familiar world that he shares with the others in the scene and the unknown future being offered to him.

Notice that the five men at the table are of different ages. They range, clockwise, from a very young boy who leans on Matthew, to a slightly older one who straddles the bench, to a young adult counting the money, to the oldest one with the spectacles, and finally to Matthew himself, who seems to be a mature adult. The invitation is offered to everyone, no matter how old. Jesus’ hand, frozen here in space, commands attention and calls to people of all ages. The invitation to transformation is extended to everyone.

Notice how different the clothing is between the two groups of people. On the left, colors, textures, and ornamentation all point to a world that is rich and sumptuous. Look at Caravaggio’s masterly handling of feathers, silks, satins, fur, and velvets as the miraculous light plays on the whole scene, highlighting the folds and drapery of luxurious fabrics and the textures of metal and wood. On the right, Jesus and Peter are dressed in plain, contrastingly drab Palestinian clothing. The two differing periods of time are no barrier to the call of Jesus. Jesus spans all time and all ages to call us to himself. Jesus did not come to call just those of his own period in history, but all people across all time.

The Call and the Cross

But what exactly does this invitation entail? We get a clue from the window, which takes up such a large space in the painting. The panes form an obvious cross, and Caravaggio places Jesus’ hand immediately below it. We remember Jesus’ words that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Taking up one’s cross means leaving behind the life one once led, turning away from old ways of being, and following Jesus’ way. It involves a turning from something and a turning toward a new orientation. For Matthew, it means leaving behind his wealth, his former, familiar ways of being, his fine clothing, and his rich life. To follow Jesus would mean to take on the simple life Jesus leads with his followers. In Caravaggio’s time, this was also a call to take up vows of poverty—a practice that reflected the ideals of the church of his day.

Those who had already decided to follow Jesus have given up their livelihoods and joined Jesus in a life of simplicity. The disciple in the painting draws our attention to this aspect as he leans forward in order to invite others to join the journey. Peter, like Jesus, is barefooted and plainly dressed. He has no obvious wealth, only a staff and cloak. He has abandoned his former life as a fisherman and given up everything to follow. Look at how similar his hand is to Jesus’ hand. He is imitating Jesus by gently reaching out, by engaging others in conversation and inviting them to follow as well.

Stepping Back, Stepping In

Spend some time looking again at the whole painting. What has changed for you? What do you see differently?

In your imagination, take a step into the painting and try to identify with each of the characters. There is a space at the table for you too. With what will you be preoccupied when Jesus enters your dark room? Where is your focus? What is on your table in front of you that engrosses you? Do you even notice when Jesus enters?

What keeps you from making a decision to follow as you “straddle the bench”? What attracts or repels you about Jesus’ call? What causes you to hesitate and pull back into the shadows?

What is it like to have the full force of the light of God shine on you? What does this light expose in your life that you need to surrender to God? How does this light enable you to see yourself and everything in a new way? What would you have to abandon in order to follow Jesus more fully? What is it like for you to hear the voice of Jesus calling you to be with him and to journey more intimately with him?

As represented by Caravaggio, the call of Jesus comes to us in the midst of the ordinary and everyday activities of life. Sometimes our daily experience is dark and burdensome. Yet the light of God is always present, piercing the gloom of our mortal toils. Jesus continually enters into every experience of our life with his hand outstretched and inviting us to turn to him. His presence is sometimes difficult to discern, but if we practice being aware, awake, and attentive, we will know he has entered our room and called us by name. Then we can turn and respond with a resounding “Yes!” to his love and light.

How aware are you of Jesus’ voice and presence in the midst of your present life experiences—calling you to turn and be transformed? How do you respond?

We know Matthew’s response. He immediately gets up, leaves everything behind, and follows Jesus. Later on in the chapter we learn he has a dinner at his house where the guests include not only Jesus but also others who were tax collectors. He has given everything to be a disciple of Jesus. He has now begun to call others to transformation. That, too, is part of the journey.

The final stage on this transformational journey is wonderfully expressed in Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.

Allow God to do the work of transformation as you walk through each day. Treat every welcome or unwelcome interruption as an opportunity to know God’s presence and turn to Life and Love. Become more attentive to the ongoing call of Jesus in your life. Allow yourself to respond the wonder of his transforming love. Journey in this love and be changed from glory into glory until God completes the divine work of restoration and reformation.

Footnotes
  1. Known today by his birthplace, Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi on Sept. 28, 1573, in Caravaggio, Italy. considered to be one of Italy’s greatest 17th-century painters, the young artist was inspired by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. after working for private patrons for several years, he moved to Rome, where he was commissioned to produce paintings for the church of San Luigi Dei Francesi. it is here on the lateral walls of the Contarelli Chapel that his famous work and first commission, the calling of St. Matthew, can be found. it was painted in 1599–1600.
  2. The Calling of St. Matthew,” Caravaggio Nimtallah/Art Resource, NY.
Juliet Benner is a spiritual director with a special interest in the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. she and her husband live on Vancouver Island in Canada and regularly lead retreats throughout Asia, the South Pacific, Europe, and North America. she can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@gmail.com
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