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Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi

February 14, 2011

The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi was one of Caravaggio’s most important commissions during his Monumental Roman Period.  He worked on paintings from the life of St. Matthew in this chapel from 1599-1600, commissioned in honor of Cardinal Matteo Contarelli.  St. Matthew and the Angel is the altarpiece which is flanked by the two laterals The Calling of St. Matthew and Martyrdom of St. Matthew.










The Calling of St. Matthew

Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro finds a balance in this lateral for the Contarelli Chapel.  All the figures except Christ are lit enough to clearly see what is happening in the scene.  However, the card players on the left are spiritually in the dark, as they do not know the Light of Christ (Martin 238).  The light radiates from Christ’s side of the painting onto the unknowing card players.  Caravaggio’s early work Cardsharps no doubt comes to mind, reoccurring in this religious scene.

Caravaggio used the device of darkness in multiple applications.  Unlike most of Caravaggio’s paintings after The Calling, there is an actual setting behind the figures.  Likewise, the darkness that usually hangs over the characters (as in Burial of St. Lucy and Raising of Lazarus) is not present above them, rather amidst, below, and between them and Christ (Wittkower 22).

Christ’s hand in the right portion of the composition imitates the hand of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512).  This is a quotation that viewers are supposed to understand as a miraculous infusion of life.  Just like the languid Adam received life, so too does the stingy tax collector Matthew.

Some scholars believe that this is an outdoor nocturnal scene.  If that is the case, the tenebristic lighting is convincingly natural.  Regardless, the two groups of people present in this scene are from two different time periods, indicated by their dress.  The card players are dressed in their contemporary costume, while Christ and St. Peter are in biblical attire.  This discredits the scene’s naturalism, yet includes the viewer as a contemporary and witness to the calling.  This, according to Martin, is a juxtaposition of the temporal and the eternal (58).










Martyrdom of St. Matthew

Opposite The Calling of St. Matthew is the Martyrdom.  This lateral is not like Caravaggio’s usual compositional style, but rather possesses characteristics of Mannerist centrifugal composition (Wittkower 23).  We have the technology to expose his original under painting from which we can see his typical linear arrangement of figures and perhaps even a sense of a background.  According to Bellori, Caravaggio changed the composition three times (Gash).  The final painting has a circular composition with repoussoir figures in the foreground.  The main action is taking place in the center.

What is still Caravaggesque is the dramatic and illogical tenebrism.  The light (from an unidentified source) flickers across the scene, but only illuminates Matthew, his executioner, and bits and pieces of auxiliary figures (such as a boy screaming in terror, reminiscent of Boy Bitten by a Lizard and an angel) (Wittkower 25).  In this complicated composition, Caravaggio painted 13 figures (one of which is said to be a self portrait).  This is an example of how he used the darkness in opposition to his stark light to his advantage, concealing parts that would be too difficult to represent in paint.  There is no distinct setting to this piece.

St. Matthew and the Angel

Caravaggio’s original composition depicting an angel guiding St. Matthew in the writing of his gospel was rejected for several reasons.  This was to be the altarpiece, the focal point in the Contarelli Chapel.  Many believed Caravaggio painted a particularly illiterate St. Matthew.  However true this was in real life, it was not of decorum to show a saint in such a lowly way.  In this original (destroyed in World War II), the angel literally guides St. Matthew’s hand rather than figuratively inspiring him.  Matthew’s expression is confused, whereas the angel looks as if he writes gospels everyday.

It was also argued that St. Matthew’s foot intruded our space all too much in the original altarpiece.  That was considered inappropriate to be placed directly above the altar.

In Caravaggio’s final composition, we see an enthusiastically inspired evangelist busily at work writing his gospel.  The angel suggests bullet points to Matthew, counted on his fingers, but does not do the writing for him.  Instead of a foot protruding out of the picture plane, Matthew’s stool teeters on the edge of a platform (the platform reminiscent of an altar, perhaps) further emphasizing Matthew’s own physical exertion and enthusiasm in writing the gospel.

In both compositions, Martin suggests that Matthew resembles portraits of Socrates available to Caravaggio at the time (261).

Gash, John. “Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. 14 Feb. 2011 <;

Martin, John R. Baroque. New York: Harper & Row. 1977.

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.

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