The art collector Charles Saatchi has been writing a series of articles in the Telegraph on great paintings. Very informative about the artist’s life and the inspiration behind the paintings, the articles have been thought-provoking to read. On October 10 Saatchi wrote about Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew: “How the sinner Caravaggio brought St Matthew to life” is its title.
Caravaggio, whose own life was a chaotic mixture of artistic genius and criminality, does indeed bring the text in St Mathew’s Gospel, chapter 9, verse 9, “to life”. Saatchi describes the painting eloquently, purely as an aesthete and connoisseur. But when a Christian looks at a painting of this subject, depicted in all its heart-stopping drama as only an artist of genius could do, it is a different matter. The principal characters in the scene of the counting-house are not simply actors in a scene; they are Christ, God and Man and saviour of the world, and Matthew, a wretched tax-collector, engaged in a despicable trade in the eyes of his fellow Jews.
That encounter with Christ, his face lit up in profile and his finger pointing with a gentle yet insistent invitation, and Matthew, startled, abashed, suddenly conscious of who is calling him, is deeply affecting. Matthew could be any one of us (as could the other characters in the painting, preoccupied in trivial pursuits or staring in unfeigned and unaware astonishment).
All these themes and many more are described in Magnificat’s publication, Praying with Saint Matthew: Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, edited by Fr Peter John Cameron O.P., editor-in-chief at Magnificat. These reflections, for every day of the year and written by a variety of religious and lay contributors, can be used for daily reading or for using alongside the corresponding readings in the Lectionary. I note that the reflection on page 377, written by Fr Romanus Cessario O.P., senior editor at Magnificat, also mentions the Caravaggio painting: Fr Cessario writes, “It takes courage to admit wrongdoing. On the other hand, who can read the Gospel of Mathew and not come away with the impression that Christ makes it a point to show his sympathy for sinners? For Saint Matthew, the lesson starts with himself. One only has to study Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew to behold divine authority overcoming all resistance to its invitation.”
Among other contributors is Father George William Rutler who, in his terse, epigrammatic style, reminds us in his reflection (page 329) that “The difference between stage plays and what theologians call ‘the drama of salvation’ is that, in the Christian drama, the audience and the players are the same.” Rutler emphasises that “Christianity is not a spectator sport. Christians are in the arena, not in the grandstand” and comments on the “kind of spiritual bulimia which tastes the Lord but does not “inwardly digest” him in the heart.”
These reflections on St Matthew’s Gospel are designed to deepen our own encounter with Christ – and with the evangelist who, summoned from his hateful profession, never looked back. Something of this unique moment is captured by Caravaggio, the all too human sinner with his divine gift.