Chiaroscuro is a term used to describe the contrast of light and dark in a painting. The artform was made famous by Italian painter Caravaggio in the painting “The Calling of St. Matthew.” This painting is found in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church in Rome, Italy. This contrast between light and dark is also an appropriate analogy for what this painting portrays, by giving us a glimpse into what was happening in the heart, mind, and soul of St. Matthew. When called by Jesus, Matthew was called from a life of darkness and into the light of truth. Jesus’ divine light poured into the darkness of his sin. Matthew’s calling is our calling too.
The Calling of St. Matthew
Caravaggio brings a deeply spiritual theme to earth for us in this painting. He brings divinity into our everyday life through the story he portrays via his work of art. In this painting we meet a group of regal, well-dressed men who are counting money. They are in what looks like the corner of a dark tavern. On the right side of the painting we see two men. An older man, the Apostle Peter. Behind him stands Jesus.
What captures the eye in this image is Jesus’ hand below the cross of the window, pointing towards the tax-collector Matthew sitting at the table. Jesus has just spoken the words found in Matthew 9:9, “Follow me.”
Light floods into the painting from above Jesus’ hand. It falls on St. Matthew, who responds by pointing to himself, as if to ask “Me?”
In the very next sentence we learn that Matthew said “yes” to Jesus’ call and he “got up and followed him.”
St. Matthew’s Call is Our Call
Art historians have caught a unique and important detail in this portrayal of Jesus coming to meet us in our humanity. The hand of Christ which Caravaggio painted is a likeness of Adam’s hand which was painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel’s “The Creation of Adam”, a masterpiece where we witness Adam encountering God. As Adam reaches out to God in hope of his great mercy, we are reminded of his fall in to original sin. Yet despite his great sin, he continues to reach out.
Caravaggio reminds us through the painting that Christ is the second Adam, and he willingly walks into the darkness of the tavern to redeem Matthew. This painting portrays not only Matthew’s redemption, it also portrays our own.
Are We Counting Money?
Perhaps we are “counting money” in our own homes and are sucked into the short-term happiness which material goods may buy us. Are we looking down at our money like Matthew’s friends in the tavern, or are we looking up and responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him? Maybe we hear God calling out to us, feel Him reaching out to us, and we are tempted to ask, “Are you sure you want me? Don’t you see where you are meeting me, here in my weakness?”
He is sure. Jesus sees you, and He wants you, right there in your weakness. He is calling you to be recreated and resurrected with Him. Let us take His hand, look up to His face, and, together with St. Matthew, reach out to Heaven.
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Susanna Parent serves as Evangelization Manager for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Office of Evangelization. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program with the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas. When she’s not reading and writing you can find her enjoying life with her new husband, brewing French press coffee in her kitchen, reading wine labels with friends in an effort to discover the perfect Pinot Noir and blogging about her travel adventures. You can learn more about her here.