Thanks to Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew

In Caravaggio’s painting, Christ is gazing at Matthew, then a tax collector from Capernaum. Like Zacchaeus of Jericho, Matthew is despised by his community for collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers and pocketing the money of the poor for his own use. Have you noticed how many outcasts Christ chose to encounter? Within months of this encounter, Matthew is an apostle, witnessing Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.

This painting reminds me of what we are reading in my School of Community. The other night friends gathered at my house to read and reflect on excerpts of “Living is the Memory of Me,” a late-summer assembly in Italy, about the “instant before that afterwards defines me in action.” The example is a boy who sees the beautiful silhouette of a girl across the street. “There is an instant, before he dashes off in pursuit,  in which he says ‘how beautiful,’ ” Fr. Julian Carrón says.

Fr.Carrón then reflects on the instant before Zacchaeus comes down from the sycamore tree to run home. In that instant before, Zacchaeus changes because he considers Christ’s gaze upon him.

Here, in Caravaggio’s masterpiece, is the instant before Matthew follows: Christ gazes at him and reaches out to him. He uses the same gesture depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when God reaches his hand out to awaken Adam, the first human.

How do our lives change when we begin to understand we exist because of the gaze of Christ? How do our hearts convert when we realize Christ is present? When he was 23 years old Fr. Luigi Guissiani wrote to a friend describing this loving gaze: “An infinite love, enormous, which bent down to my nothingness, drew out a human being, generated me, as a speck of dust in its body, limitless in its eager openness to truth and love.”

Caravaggio understood this; he also understood that some of us never will allow ourselves to bask in this loving gaze. Notice the two men on the left side of the painting who continue to work without ceasing, unaware of Christ’s presence. I pray we all can turn to His loving gaze and say “How beautiful.”

  • Frank

    I like how Carravaggio paints this in his time, in the setting and dress of his age. He brings the encounter with Him to the present day for him, and for us.

  • Art4thesoul

    Allison, "How beautiful" is the perfect discription of not only the painting but how the moment is captured for us so many years later to contemplate and thank God for our faith in his son, Jesus!

  • Anonymous

    Thoughtful piece-thank you

  • Jean

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Anonymous

    This was wonderful… when we realize Christ's gaze on us – not just the first time but each time afterward, it is an experience that cannot be put in words.. Rose

  • Stefanie

    Allison, thank you for your post. This painting had a profound effect upon our current pastor — while in discernment, he used to stand in front of the original almost every day. He felt as if Jesus was beckoning him, too — and would kind of argue with God about it every day. In the end, God won. I thank God & Caravaggio for this, he is a wonderful priest.I'm currently reading asmall-but-mighty book about Caravaggio's life by Francine Prose, "Carravaggio: Painter of Miracles" paperback published this year although originally written in 2005. Good stuff!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this beautiful post Allison! This painting by Caravaggio is very dear to me because it is tied to the very beginning of my vocation. I was in Rome for few days some years ago when I understood that God was calling me – and I remember few hours later entering in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where this painting is, and feeling myself completely one with that motion of surprise and almost disbelief (Are you sure?!? Me?!? Do you know how bad I am?!?) on the face of Matthew. Since then, I have that image on the cover of my Breviary – so I see it anytime I pray.