This week our New Testament class completed its study of Mark’s Gospel and began to read Matthew. We visited San Luigi Dei Francesi, the French national church in Rome, which has in its Contarelli Chapel three famous Caravaggio frescoes of St. Matthew: the altarpiece of St. Matthew and the Angel, showing Matthew half-kneeling at his writing table and looking toward the angel in the air behind him for inspiration to write the gospel, the Calling of Matthew at his tax office, and the lengendary Martyrdom of Matthew as he is pulled from an altar while celebrating the Eucharist.
This week we had the good fortune to be joined by Dr. Arthur Urbano who is in Rome as part of his sabbatical research project on the art of the catacombs, particularly the early portrayals of Christ and the apostles. Dr. Urbano pointed out that the depiction of the Inspiration of Matthew was consistent with Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Costitution on Divine Revelation from The Second Vatican Council. Caravaggio portrays Matthew in his red robe looking up to the angel over his right shoulder for inspiration, but he is also a true human author, as he has his pen in his own hand and it is not being guided by the angel as in an earlier now lost version.
We also were able to do a close reading of the Call of Matthew. The text in the Gospel is extremely brief. “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” (Mat 9:9)
Caravaggio, using his brilliant chiaroscuro technique, has captured the moment of the call before Matthew has responded. He has light streaming into a dingy dark room from the right hand side just above the head of a young Jesus whose hand is extended toward a bearded Matthew whose face is bathed in the incoming light. Jesus’ hand gesture is reminiscent of Adam’s in Michelangelo’s Sistene ceiling. He and Peter, who is in the shadow just in front of him and also pointing to Matthew, are dressed in the garb of 1st century Jews and are barefoot. In fact Jesus’ feet are already turned to leave the room, having given the call. Matthew and the others at the table are dressed in Renaissance clothing: elaborate hats with feathers, tights, swords, doublets with puffed sleeves, etc. The two young men nearest Jesus are looking at him, but the elderly man and the young man at the far left of the painting are absorbed in counting money and have no awareness of Jesus. Matthew is famously pointing to himself with his left hand in an extension of Jesus’ gesture, as if to say, “Who, me?” He still has his right hand on the money at the end of the table, but his legs under the table are preparing to rise and follow Jesus. The painting is a brilliant illustration of the moment of the light of grace summoning Matthew to abandon his attachment to money and follow Jesus’ call.
In the afternoon, thanks to Arthur, we attended a moving performance of the contemporary German opera “Augustinus – A Musical Mosaic” at Castel Gandolfo in honor of his holiness Benedict XVI who was in attendance and seemed to be very moved by the performance. The event was part of a conference on Augustine’s City of God sponsored by the diocese of Wurzburg. We thought we were simply going to a tour of Castel Gandolfo, but leave to Arthur to lead us to such a moving event.