‘”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.