John Berger explains “The Calling of St Matthew” by Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew (circa 1599-1600), by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

‘”The Calling of St. Matthew’ depicts five men sitting round their usual table, telling stories, gossiping, boasting of what one day they will do, counting money. The room is dimly lit. Suddenly the door is flung open. The two figures who enter are still part of the violent noise and light of the invasion. (Berenson wrote that Christ comes in like a police inspector to make an arrest.)

Two of Matthew’s colleagues refuse to look up, the other two younger ones stare at the strangers with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. Why is he proposing something so mad? Who’s protecting him, the thin one who does all the talking? And Matthew, the tax-collector with a shifty conscience which has made him more unreasonable than most of his colleagues, points at himself and asks: is it really I who must go? Is it really I?

How many thousands of decisions to leave have resembled Christ’s hand here! The hand is hold out towards the one who has to decide, yet it is ungraspable because so fluid. It orders the way, yet offers no direct support. Matthew will get up and follow the thin stranger from the room, down the narrow streets, out of the district. He will write his gospel, he will travel to Ethiopia and the South Caspian and Persia. Probably he will be murdered.

And behind the drama of this moment of decision is a window, giving onto the outside world. In painting, up to then, windows were treated either as sources of light, or as frames framing nature or an exemplary event outside. Not so this window. No light enters. The window is opaque. We see nothing. Mercifully we see nothing because what is outside is threatening. It is a window through which only the worst news can come; distance and solitude.” ~ by John Berger


The painting tells the story based on the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 9:9): “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed him.”

John Berger seems to be sure of who’s Saint Matthew, I tend to agree but I am also perplexed. The bearded man, likely Saint Matthew, was he really pointing at himself? Or was he pointing at the man beside him as if saying “is that him you meant for, rather than me?” This is my imagination, but didn’t Caravaggio also intend to highlight certain ambiguity so to arouse the confusions and tensions among those men (or to the readers who are expected to think harder on his painting)? Or perhaps, what’s more crucial is to depict the moment of shock and anguish, for anyone or everyone, who is being called upon when Christ summons.

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8 thoughts on “John Berger explains “The Calling of St Matthew” by Caravaggio

  1. “Violent noise” and “light of the invasion,” does not sound like a calling and the painting doesn’t depict anything like that either. The hand of Christ, which Peter immitates (Peter is the man eclipsing Jesus in the foreground), is reminicent of the hand of God from Michelangelo’s Creation, and so the calling of Matthew is much like the creation of man in that Matthew is going to be renewed, born of spirit and water.

    Good call on the abmiguity of Matthew’s hand.

    • Thank you for your comments. I shared your idea on “violent noise” and “light of the invasion” does not sound like a calling, I don’t have that impression either.

      I never thought of the notion about the hand of God “Michelangelo’s Creation” …. glad that you raised my awareness, I am thinking about it.

  2. Thanks for posting! This painting is in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (Saint Lous of the French) in Rome. It is in a chapel with two other paintings by Caravaggio dealing with the life of Saint Matthew. The chapel is one of my favorite places on the face of the earth for that reason, though now you have to fight the crowds a bit to look at the paintings. I wrote an article about it for a great website:

    • Thank you so much for your comments, and I learn a number of new informations from your article, which is interesting, hey, just an idea, you think of “republish” it in your blog? as there are many people who are interested in this painting …..

        • Oh, personally I don’t think people will be puzzled, in fact I think all arts are quite interlinked. I sometimes think of a tune when viewing certain painting, and vice versa …. I think your readers will be delightfully surprised rather than passively puzzled!

          But if you write a post on cooking, do make sure it is an “artistic plat” (haha).

          And I never quite care how people think of my blog or posts, it is a trail of subjects which interests myself in the first place and hence I share them; in fact I don’t know what the readers want and therefore that’s hardly my objective of writing a blog.

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