Essay on Caravaggio’s First Inspiration of St. Matthew

Michelangelo Caravaggio, the great Baroque painter of the seventeenth century, was always an artist under scrutiny. His style, the subject matter of his paintings, and how he chose to depict his subjects, was often criticized and rejected by his patrons. In a journal article written by Troy Thomas, entitled “Expressive Aspects of Caravaggio’s First Inspiration of Saint Matthew”, these rejected paintings are discussed. The article focuses on the themes of these rejected works, but namely Inspiration of St. Matthew, and uses these themes to prove the work’s validity. This painting is compared and contrasted to other similar, accepted works of the time as well, to help show that the work was not done in bad taste.

Commissioned by Francesco Contarelli for the Church of San Luigi, Caravaggio’s first attempt at portraying the Inspiration of Saint Matthew was rejected by the patrons for a few reasons that all underlined the dictates of the Council of Trent. The opinion of the church officials was that the painting did not express the necessary level of decorum for religious artwork: Saint Matthew’s bare feet are displayed for all to see, he looks old and wrinkled, and the expression on his face expresses a certain illiteracy or ignorance. The angel, an androgynous and erotic figure, leans on Matthew and physically guides his hand to write the Hebrew script. This action was thought to depict Matthew as stupid, and unable to write at all without the direct guidance of the angel. The befuddled expression on the Saint’s face also added to this impression of illiteracy.

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In his article, Troy Thomas discusses these reasons for rejection, and uses alternate interpretations of them to validate Caravaggio’s work. First, the i…

…that he had worn in Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, and embrace the ascetic life of an apostle.

In my opinion, the above are all reasons to accept the Inspiration of Saint Matthew as a valid religious work. I agree with the author, and I believe that its expressive qualities make it an exceptional piece for a church, as it inspires the very themes in its viewers that Matthew personifies. Historically, Caravaggio’s works have been criticized mercilessly, and his patrons were known to insist on revised versions of his paintings. I believe that it is Caravaggio’s aggressively real style that lends an intense power, and a strong presence to his paintings. If his unconventional approach had been studied with more of an open mind, and embraced by patrons, I’m sure that he would have been able to truly express himself, which is art in its purest form.


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