Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Pope Francis’s Favorite Piece
“A Jesuit must be creative,” Pope Francis once said. He’s passionate about such things — many of his past professions involved creativity and learning in some way or another. He’d been a chemical technician, a tango dancer, an opera fan, and an art connoisseur.
From his favorite films (Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast, 1987) to his favorite musical piece (Great Mass in C. Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1783), Pope Francis has always championed the celebratory nature of art — especially combined with religion.
His favorite artwork is The Calling of St. Matthew, painted by Caravaggio as a commission for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. The Baroque masterpiece has been the chapel’s pièce de résistance since its creation in 1600.
A young Pope Francis — in the days he was still known as Cardinal Bergoglio — would often ruminate on the painting: “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze,” he’d said, assimilating himself with St. Matthew, the subject of Caravaggio’s piece.
Caravaggio’s Works: “Without Hope, Without Fear”
The Calling of St. Matthew is one of Caravaggio’s many outstanding works — and perhaps the most notable piece to define his illustrious career. As one of the most renowned Baroque masters, he had his oeuvre among the most studied in all of art history.
Caravaggio was born in 1571, the same year as Michaelangelo Merisi — his namesake an ode to the Archangel Michael — in Milan, Italy. Little is known about his early life, but it’s believed that he has been orphaned at a very young age after almost everyone in his family died from the bubonic plague.
His years as an orphan turned out to be formative for his art career. At the tender age of 11, he had been taken under the wing of Italian Mannerism master Simone Peterzano. It was also during these years that Caravaggio would learn the phrase nec spe, nec metu, meaning “without hope, without fear.”
These words would become an allusion to Caravaggio’s rebellious and provocative nature as a man. Official records of his life were very scarce — him being born of a poor family and orphaned at a young age — but according to those records, Caravaggio formed a camaraderie with a ragtag group of street painters and swordsmen.
At some point in his life, the then-penniless Caravaggio would be known as “the most famous painter in Rome.” He would eventually be commissioned for several great churches and cathedrals by some of the city’s cardinals, and at last, secured a career as an artist.
Ironically, Caravaggio was far from a devout Catholic himself: He lived a life of notorious scandals that involved gambling, brawls, and love affairs with men and women. He was described as brash and hot-headed. It’s almost an amusing contrast to the artistic talent he’d nurtured, which seemed to be characteristic of Catholic religiosity.
But while his works were not limited to religious commissions, a massive part of his oeuvre had consisted of art he’d done for churches. Among these was, of course, The Calling of St. Matthew, still exhibited proudly in the walls of Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi Del Francesi.
The piece’s source material is from Matthew 9:9:
“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose and followed him.”
The work was accompanied by other great pieces of the same theme, such as The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600) and The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602). But “The Calling” remained the magnum opus, praised far and wide for its innovative art technique.
Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, the contrast and dimension of coloring with light and dark tones. It was a skill that required artistic intuition: The varying gradation of hues must add depth to an otherwise flat painting.
The Calling of St. Matthew is a quintessential example of how the Renaissance art technique was perfected. It was described as a myriad of things: “extreme,” “dramatic,” and “shockingly innovative.”
Art as a Religious Enterprise
Although Caravaggio lived a life of controversy, his works have remained a staple in Catholic art. Artists and non-artists alike recognize his masterful style and astounding talent — which go beyond the realm of art.
Pope Francis himself was prompted with contemplation upon viewing Caravaggio’s art. He saw Jesus’s outstretched arm pointing at Matthew in the painting and assimilated himself in the position of the saint. “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew,” he said.
The calling of St. Matthew is inspiring because it’s a story of Jesus seeing potential in a man — a tax collector, a sinner — seemingly so ordinary and dishonorable. When Caravaggio expressed the account through his art, he made it come to life and, subsequently, encourages the viewer to introspect.
Beauty is one thing; depth is another. When Pope Francis recognized both qualities in Caravaggio’s piece, he joyfully shared it with the Catholic community. And by doing so, he promotes and highlights art as an inherent religious — and human — endeavor.