Martydom of St.Matthew

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  • Oil on Canvas: 1599-1600
  • 323 x 343 cm
  • Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Nothing that Caravaggio had done before was equal in scale, majesty or beauty to the first painting he produced for the French Church in Rome. The Martyrdom of St Matthew and its companion piece, the Calling of St. Matthew

The action of this picture takes place on the steps up to a Christian altar, with a Greek cross marked on its frontage, and a candle burning. In the background on the left, we can just make out the shaft of a column in the almost impenetrable darkness. Some scholars argue that there is a baptismal font in the foreground, which may account of the nearly half-naked man nearby. Neither the man on the left leaning against a step nor the two youths crouching in the foreground on the right, have anything to do except stare at the main action. They form the right-hand border of the composition, like river-gods on classical reliefs.

The picture's main figure is also half-naked. This is not the martyr, but his executioner.Oddly, his feet are level with the falling figure to his left. He has emerged from the depth of the picture to stand near the altar. This is hard to understand in a pictorial narrative which ought to be clarifying the passage of time in spatial terms.

Yet what Caravaggio is really depicting is the murderer's moment. He has thrown St Matthew, a bearded old man, to the ground. As a priest, he is wearing alb and chasuble. Whilst his victim helplessly props himself up on the ground, the Herculean youth seizes his wrist in his right hand, to hold the victim still for the death-blow. Yet the apostle's attempt to ward off his murderer, with his furious face, turns into a different gesture as an angel extends a martyr's palm-leaf to his open hand.


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