The Power of Art

Custom User Avatar
More by this author
Power is a thing of beauty. Those who wield it can do much. Many harness its destructive capability and use it to conquer their opposition. Others use it in more subtle ways, making arguments and inclining people to their cause. There are some who seek to conquer the soul of man. These few use pictures and written words to convey their message. These men are the artists in the world and their works serve to capture their fellow man even after they have passed. One of these men was an orphaned child whose paintings would create a new era and style during the seventeenth century. His name is Caravaggio and his most powerful work is The calling of St. Matthew. The power, tension, and raw emotions found in The Calling of St. Matthew come from the skill of Caravaggio himself, his dramatic use of light (chiaroscuro), the subject matter, the movements of Christ and Matthew, and the story behind the painting.

Caravaggio’s claim to fame for his works began the year he was orphaned at age eleven. He was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, an artists from Milan and also pupil of Titian, one of the greatest painters of the day. From early on in his life he received almost coveted training which helped provide a good foundation. Even in his beginning works talent and skill can be seen as well as his characteristic rebellion. As he continued on in life the skill of his fingers and eyes only grew. After a few years in Rome he gained a patron. Namely, Cardinal Francesco del Monte a prelate in the papal court and a man of measurable influence. This too showcases Caravaggio’s skill as a man of such prestige would surely not be easy to impress. After all he could arguably have had almost any artist he wanted. And still he chose the young and wild orphan. It was del Monte who arranged for Caravaggio to paint the alter pieces for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The commission to paint three scenes of St. Matthew’s life made him a “pictor celeberrimus, a ‘renowned painter’” (Caravaggio p.2). The man behind some of the most scandalous paintings of the day was much sought after. Later, when he was running for his life after the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni he was accompanied by his fame as the greatest artist of his day. Even after his untimely death artisans still copied his style and became know as “Caravaggisti” (Caravaggio p.5). His style can be seen in works by the dutch great Rembrandt thirty years later. Caravaggio, the Father of Baroque, was a master of his craft fully capable of imparting the power of emotion into all he did.

The strength of the paintings itself can be dissected. One of Caravaggio’s biggest calling cards was his dramatic play of light, or lack thereof as the case presents itself. This creates dramatic scenes where much of the canvas is plunged in darkness with intensely stark beams of light. This is called chiaroscuro. In the The Calling of St. Matthew the light can be seen coming from multiple places. The strongest beam comes in with Christ, the Light of the World. As Alfred Moir observes that this sudden flare of light might be “intended as miraculous” as no shadow comes from Saint Peter. This is the primary source light and directs the eye across the scene towards to astonished saint-to-be while almost everything else is drowned in black paint. Another element it accentuates is the source of Matthew’s surprise. Jesus’ hand stands out from the darkness as one of the few things illuminated in that segment of the painting. As the eyes hover over it they are irresistibly drawn to it. Another source of light is from the window just above Christ and St. Peter. It provides a softer, diffused light in contrast with the light introduced with Christ and provides a dim light to the whole room. An interesting connection to be made comes from Corinthians; “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” The overt contrast between light and dark increases the tension of this pivotal moment of Matthew’s life. As the tensions builds itself in the “nearly silent, dramatic narrative” the power of the emotions in their faces begins to tug at the heart of all who look upon it.

Of course the lighting only serves to accentuate and empower the subjects of the painting. There are seven figures all together most over by the table. Two are youths, one older and armed while the other is younger. The former appears to be “leaning forward a little menacingly” (Moir) as if to tell the intruders to leave them in the dark and is calmed only by Peter’s hand. The younger youth acts differently than his older counterpart. He leans into Matthew for protection seemingly oblivious to Christ’s call. The men to Matthew’s left are to busy counting money to even notice redemption shining brightly in front of them. The final figure at the table is the tax collector himself, the focus point of the piece. The other characters in the piece are standing to right of the painting. Christ stands with one arm extended making His call undeniably clear. St. Peter stands in in front of him blocking most of his body from sight. Collectively, these characters add a living dynamic to painting. This draws the onlooker in as he passes by and succumbs to the power of the picture.

The most powerful part of it is the interaction between Christ and Matthew. As the God Man reaches out to issue His call one can the power and confidence he possess in the “ languor” (Moir) of his hand. It reaches out almost limp at the wrist in its divine beckoning yet it still leaves the poor tax-collector confused. He must point at himself to gain reassurance that it is he, a sinner, being called to walk with the Prophet. As one looks in, the worlds of these too men seem to transcend of the other characters. They are exclusively focused on the other. The conflicted between the youth and St. Peter goes without notice as Matthew mind now racing must decide which path he will take. He does not have long though, for when one looks at the feet of Christ they see His “...feet are already turned as if to leave the room.” (Moir) Perhaps this is because of His foreknowledge of Matthew’s decision. The tension that rises from the painting helps bond the viewer to it further demonstrating the power of the depiction itself.

All the elements discussed up to this point contribute to form the scene.And though the scene holds a certain sway over the viewer it is lost without meaning. The story behind the piece gives it meaning. It can be found in all the gospels and is told like so:

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The tale shows of Christ’s mercy and desire to save those people that no one else is willing to. He goes so far as to make one of them His apostle, a man who at the time would have been viewed as a traitor to his own country. The story also speaks of the power of redemption something Caravaggio would learn at the end of his life while trying to get a pardon from Pope.

Many who walk the halls of art museums see paintings depicting and mythological event or some type of emotion.Where these are intriguing enough to draw the eye few wield power over its audience like The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. The artist’s mastery with the brush and penchant for emotionally charged non-classical interpretations of events make the painting stand out from others on the same subject as well as the masterful use of light and dark revolutionary at the time. The subject and the subsequent story behind it also create an affect on the audience drawing them in and inviting them to take a detailed look at each of the characters and their movements, particularly those of Christ and Matthew. Power is an immaterial element that allows its wielder to dominate those around it. This painting does exactly that standing toe-to-toe with many contemporary pieces art, film, and literature. And as far as I’m concerned crushes all of them.


New International Version (NIV). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1989.
"Caravaggio - 'The calling of Saint Matthew' - masterworks of painting." theArtWolf.com - Art and
the art world. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2011.
<http://www.theartwolf.com/masterworks/caravaggio-saint-matthew.htm>.
Caravaggio. "Caravaggio: The Calling of Saint Matthew." Mark Harden's Artchive. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://artchive.com/artchive/C/caravaggio/calling_of_st_matthew_text.jpg
Merisi de Caravaggio, Michelangelo. "Caravaggio Biography - Biography.com." Biography.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Caravaggio-9237777>.





Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback