by Thomas Banks, Humanities & Latin Teacher
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Calling of St. Matthew has famously proven among Caravaggio scholars a subject of contention. At issue for some time has been the question of which of two figures seated in the custom house in fact represents the future apostle: the prominent bearded man at the center, visibly startled by Christ’s appearance and command, or the surly youth at the far left, shamefacedly bent over the table as though vainly attempting to avoid both the glance of the Son of Man and the light that shines behind Him?
This controversy is of course one in which a non-expert such as myself, who knows precious little of the early Baroque, does well not to venture too confidently an answer which no one solicited in the first place. This being said, I pretend to offer no certainties here, only what I hope is a piece of fairly plausible guesswork.
I believe that Matthew is the young man brooding at the table’s end. True enough, Caravaggio has painted Our Lord’s gesture of summons ambiguously, and such is the effect of the painter’s tenebrism that His eye is not more obviously fixed on one man than the other. Also, the older man appears to be pointing at himself in anxious fear, as though this itinerant rabbi (of whom all the men in the customs no doubt have heard) is about to lay upon him some awful curse or command more awful still. Even the amused snobbery of the plumed worldling attired in gold and red has something of wide-eyed trepidation in it, as though his attention has been drawn truly and for the first time to something greater than himself. The authority of the Intruder at the right is visible enough to every other character in the composition, and little is added to His commanding presence by the innocuous piety of the halo which the demands of convention have compelled our artist to trace, however faintly, about the sacred head.
But the young man is past anxiety; he is crumpled into a heap of abashed resignation, alive only with the knowledge that what he has been, he can no longer be, and what he has worshiped he now must cast aside. The empty glance of crushed devotion he offers to the few pathetic coins before his eyes is nothing so much as the look of a man intent even in defeat on not looking up to see the knowledge of his losses in the features of those around him. Somehow I am reminded of the last words of the defeated French emperor on his deathbed asking rhetorically of his attendants, “Surely we were not cowards at Sedan?”
So often merely the presence or a few pointed questions of Our Lord thus disarmed his interlocutors. His “Whence was the baptism of John, from Heaven or the sons of men?”, his “What you are about to do, do quickly.” – do not these cut to the center of His listeners far more keenly than could even the most starkly wrathful utterances of an Amos or an Ezekiel? Those who receive them have nothing left to say. He subdues them each and every one: Judas, Pilate, the Pharisees (time and time again) the woman at the well, the young aristocrat; as for this last, one wonders, could he ever again really enjoy his many possessions?
For that matter, does the young tax collector in this painting have the air of one who might yet love his worldly valuables after turning his back on a heavenly vocation? Notice that Caravaggio has painted the money on the table with no intoxicating glamour, no seductive radiance. The coins before the sinner hardly shine. But these, however commonplace their appearance, still remain for Matthew an idol of devotion, and were we not informed already of the incident’s conclusion, we might be forgiven for doubting whether he, abject as here he sits, could find within him the will to rise up as bidden, put off the mountebank, and put on the apostle. At this moment he has no love for what he is; like every votary of a counterfeit god, he has become the living image of his deity: hardened and exchangeable. “Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea,” as the Psalmist has it; that is, “Like those who make it.”
In our natural estate of vicious imperfection, much of what makes each of us himself is that which he must leave if he would live. Truly to live – doesn’t every one of us desire it? But at what cost, and what terms of surrender? When I make up the account of those damning properties of which I must let go, how much of myself have I abandoned? I consider the words of the great Ignatian prayer: “Suscipe, Domine, universam meam libertatem. Accipe memoriam, intellectum, atque voluntatem omnem” (“Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. My memory, my understanding, and my will.”) It is not the thought only of the suffering that must attend the sacrifice of our liberty and memory and will that disquiets us. Do we not also ask, “once the offering is made, will I any longer know myself?”
None of us is more than the sum of his deeds, and when our deeds are evil we lose the ability to conceive of any version of ourselves that is not somehow twisted and corrupt. It is at this point that we are first tempted to apply the first ether to our conscience; to tell ourselves that what we are we are, and that whatever hints of greater goods might now threaten to unsettle our self-love, these need not trouble us so much that we should wish for any strong medicine to cure us of our ailments. How often have we heard it said (how often have we said it?): “I have a sense of what I really am, and can live with that reality. I make no apologies for what I have done, because any compromise with iniquity is worth the reward of self-knowledge.”
Here the egotism of Rousseau is prophetic: “Such as I was, I declared myself; sometimes low and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast seen my inmost soul. Power eternal! Assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my Confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.”
This, I think, is the battle that rages within Matthew as he stares down at the tokens of his past life. He has been avaricious, disaffected, cynical, corrupt. But he knows himself for what he is, and the familiarity of degradation holds, for a moment, its position against the overtures of the terrible strangeness of sanctity. To find himself, the sinner must lose himself, and so put on a new man whom he does not know, and whose purity can only be, to the eye of flesh, something wholly alien. Is it not so with all of us? And is not the beauty of Holiness as frightening as any Hell?