In 1600 Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the side walls of the Contarelli Chapel of this church. Good pictures of the chapel can be found on the Web Gallery of Art website and Wikipedia. Many documents pertaining to this chapel have survived, so we have detailed information on the history of these paintings.
The San Luigi dei Francesi, dedicated to the French St Louis, was built for the French community in Rome. The facade dates from 1589 and is attributed to Giacomo della Porta. One of the financiers of the church was Matthieu Cointerel, a Frenchmen who was appointed cardinal in 1583, and was better known under his Italian name Matteo Contarelli. He wanted to be buried in ‘his’ church and therefore had a chapel built. The painter Girolamo Muziano was commissioned to paint the altarpiece, the walls and the chapel vault with six scenes from the life of the evangelist Matthew. When Contarelli died in 1585, Muziano had not yet started on the paintings. He died seven years later and still had not painted as much as a single brushstroke.
The Crescendi family was entrusted with carrying out Contarelli’s last will. They commissioned the Flemish sculptor Jacob Cobaert to carve an altarpiece. Cavaliere d’Arpino was commissioned to do the paintings. However, he was so busy that he only had time for three small frescos on the vault. By 1599, the chapel had neither an altarpiece nor wall paintings. The priests of San Luigi were fed up. They turned to the Fabbrica di San Pietro (a papal commission for building projects), which had legal authority over pending estates. According to Caravaggio’s biographer Baglione, it was Del Monte’s mediation that led to Caravaggio being commissioned to paint the Inspiration of Matthew and the Martyrdom of Matthew, and three years later St Matthew and the Angel.
The martyrdom of St Matthew took place in Ethiopia. According to the Legenda Aurea, King Hirtacus ordered the apostle killed because St Matthew had converted his betrothed to Christianity who no longer wanted to marry the king. At the time, Contarelli had given Muziano detailed instructions on how to paint the representations. Based on these instructions, Caravaggio created a composition, which is not the same as the one you see here, but can be seen underneath this painting with the help of X-rays. Either Caravaggio or his client were probably unhappy with the result. Caravaggio simply painted the new painting over the old one.
It is reportedly possible to see the overpainting with the naked eye, but you would have to be up close, which unfortunately will not be possible. The original design was very traditional, placed against a background of monumental classical architecture. In the eventual painting, Caravaggio probably did use Contarelli’s instructions as a guideline, but the background has disappeared.
The focus is on details such as the altar and the steps, the saints bloody habit, the startled faces of the bystanders (Caravaggio included himself in the painting). The composition is reminiscent of a wheel, in which the murderer and his victim form the hub and the spectators the spokes. The sense of chaos is reinforced by the strong contrasts between light and dark (chiaroscuro). Bellori writes that Caravaggio used a high lamp that strongly lit the murderer and left the others in shadow. The figures are wearing contemporary clothes to remind the viewers that the past lives on in the present.
The other chapel wall features the Calling of St Matthew. This is a representation of the moment at which Matthew bids his life as a tax collector farewell to follow Jesus. Caravaggio depicts the very moment at which St Matthew is being called. He appears to say: did you mean me?
St Matthew and his companions are counting money, which represents earthly greed. The old man with the glasses and the boy on the far left do not even look up, blinded as they are by material affairs; they will not be saved, unlike St Matthew and the other two boys. On the right are Christ and St Peter. Behind these two a shaft of light enters the room that touches the outstretched hand of Christ and falls on St Matthew; the Bible says: ‘Christ is the light of the world’ (St John 8:12). By the way, the outstretched hand is a ‘quote’ from the work of Michelangelo as you will see this afternoon.
Caravaggio painted the altarpiece ‘St Matthew and the Angel’ last. Cobaert’s statue had been rejected by the clients because they didn’t like it. Caravaggio went to work and painted a rather rustic St Matthew with a big, balding head, a thick neck and strong arms and legs. His foot almost pokes out of the painting. He is staring wide-eyed at the Hebrew letters in his book that he has written under the guidance of a beautiful and elegant angel. As you can see, this is a different painting than the one that is hanging there now because this version was rejected.
The Council of Trent had decreed that religious images were to teach the faithful how to invoke holy intervention. Saints were virtuous examples of pious behaviour and dedication to God. The Council instructed the bishops to ensure that saints were never depicted as being ugly, unchaste, or in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. And that was exactly what his clients believed Caravaggio had done! St Matthew looked much too stupid and that was quite unacceptable. Fortunately, the original altarpiece was purchased by Giustiniani (it eventually ended up in Berlin where it was destroyed by fire in 1945) and Caravaggio painted a second version. In this painting, St Matthew looks much more noble, and bears a closer resemblance to the evangelist of the side walls. He himself is writing the words, while the angel is counting on its fingers: the Gospel of St Matthew starts with Jesus’ family tree; Jesus, the son of David, son of Abraham.