Caravaggio Death Of St Matthew Essay Research

Caravaggio, Death Of St. Matthew Essay, Research Paper

Caravaggio, Death of St. Matthew

Michelangelo de Caravaggio is one of the most renowned and popular artists of the Baroque Period. In fact, many paintings from this period, as well as after have been described as ?Caravagesque.? Caravaggio?s works are some of the most popular in Italy, as well as around the world, and have been put into there own stylistic group. In his painting, the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, there contains certain characteristics that make the painting easily recognizable to a connoisseur of fine paintings. This paper will discuss some background of this artist?s life, the content of the work, some ideas that it portrays and contains, and a visual description of the painting.

Michelangelo Amerigi, known in the art world as Caravaggio, was born in Caravaggio, in Lombardy, Italy. He was born into a somewhat successful family, in which his father worked as a mason. Growing up in Lombardy was not the most superlative place for a young artist. Luckily for him, Milan, Italy was nearby, and he took up studying art there. Shortly after that he moved to Rome, which was the center of the art world at the time, and began what was a most masterful career. Many of Caravaggio’s paintings reflected his personality and character. As a young boy up until he was an old man, Caravaggio had a terrible temper, and was not afraid of confrontation or death. Many times it seemed as though he went out looking for a confrontation. In one instance, over a difference in a game of ball, he challenged another young man to a fight in which resulted in Caravaggio killing him with his sword. This was not the only confrontation though; there are several more documented throughout his life, in several different courts. Caravaggio?s attitude and character allowed himself to express some of the darker and naturally gruesome scenes of religion, mythology, and history. Unlike anyone else, his paintings captured an audience with his use of natural looking figures, dramatic situations, and with a powerful sense of immediacy.

Caravaggio?s Death of St. Matthew is a painting in which his characteristics are represented very clearly. Many of Caravaggio?s works were those of religious scenes that were stories from the Bible and other scriptural readings. Matthews?s death resulted from his public disapproval of the King of Ethiopia having a sexual interest for a virgin named Ephigenia. The rest of the story of the Death of St. Matthew, is explained by the words of the Golden Legend. ?When he heard these words, the king was consumed with rage, and went out of the church. After the Mass, the king sent a swordsman, who came behind Matthew as he stood at the altar with his hands raised to Heaven in prayer, drove a sword into his back, and consummated the apostle?s martyrdom (death). This story was not written into the Bible, since the Gospels were written before Matthew traveled to Ethiopia as a missionary. That being the case, the story is recounted from the book the Golden Legend.

Another characteristic of Caravaggio’s work was his use of light and dark. The Death of St. Matthew is dark overall, with a mysterious light source that eliminates the actual death of the Saint. This mysterious glow brings a religious feel to the painting and along with that gives the story a more powerful expression. Shadows and space are used very carefully to give a sense of immediacy to the scene. The figures around the murder all seem to be backing away from the action in different ways, which helps centralize the important part of the scene. This use of geometric placing of objects shows that he has not totally gotten away from earlier classical artistic methods.

This painting also contains natural looking figures and objects, which help give some realism to the story. Grimaces on the face of Matthew, as well as the swordsman, and onlookers depict the reality of experiencing such a terrible occurrence. Flesh is stretched and torn, while wounds are spewing blood out of the martyr. The realistic depiction of this story makes the work a true masterpiece.

Caravaggio?s Death of St. Matthew is one of a pair of paintings that were done for the Contarelli Chapel in the late sixteenth century. On the right side of the altar hangs the more notable and popular Calling of St. Matthew, which depicts the Lord entering a room, asking Matthew to become an Apostle. Opposite to this painting, on the left side of the altar, hangs the Death of St. Matthew. This painting describes the story of his death, as explained in the Golden Legend. St. Matthew is shown, struck by the sword of the exicutioner, lying on the floor alive, but helpless. There is blood splattered on him from the initial wound. Matthew is dressed in priestly robes and grimaces in pain as the swordsman awaits to finish the deed. The swordsman is shown standing over the fallen Martyr, with little clothes on, showing off his athletic build. This pagan nudity, surrounded by many worshippers recalls the influence of Raphael, whose works contained such material. Also, much of the drama depicted here most likely came from the consultation of Titian, probably through works like his Death of St. Peter Martyr.

The main action of Matthew?s death is the center point of the picture. It is framed by the reclining figures in the foreground and by those at the sides who recoil or flee in horror; all by which surround the naked swordsman, who acts like the axle of a flattened wheel-like composition of centrifugal energy. Not only does this strategy help bring focus to the painting, but it also helped take up some empty space around the action. In order to match his other painting, the Calling of St. Matthew, which was located directly next to this one, figures of the same size were needed. These extra onlookers give the painting much support, as it hangs next to one of Caravaggio?s most impressive and popular works.

Art historians have discussed the figures that are witnessing the murder at length for years. About half of the figures are clothed and the rest are depicted as mostly nude. This fact has given rise to several hypotheses. One idea suggests that Matthew was giving the sacrament of Baptism to the nudes in the painting, along with their witnesses at their sides. A young boy is seen at the bottom right of the work, turning and overwhelmed with fear. On the left, several figures are shown, backing away from the act with a sense of terror in their body languages and expressions. One of these figures, the man with the beard, is actually thought to be none other than Caravaggio himself. Art conisseurers believe that this is actually his self-portrait inside the scene. Above the suffering Saint, sits and angel on a cloud, that is handing some palm to him.

Also, the bottom right half of the painting is brighter than the rest of the painting, since it is the best position to catch visitors? eyes. This aspect of the painting took careful thought and planning. The position of these paintings in the Chapel, the lights source, and the tone and darkness of the painting make the work hard to see. The brighter light used at the bottom corner draws people to the painting, which is very important in this situation.

This painting was actually repainted to its present condition. Special x-ray photography shows that the previous work was much different. The figures were much smaller in the first composition, and they were situated towards the bottom of the work. This did not match the size and style of the Calling of St. Matthew, which hangs directly next to this work. Also, the first composition was less gruesome, and depicted a less violent scene. Although this painting was going to hang in a Chapel, it was customary at this time to have paintings portray such vile sights of martyrs. For these reasons, Caravaggio painted over his previous work, and we are left with the current masterpiece of today. His use of realism, dark shades, and mysterious light sources were perfect for what the Church wanted at this time.


1. Camiz, Franca Trinchieri, Death and Rebirth in Caravaggio?s Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Artibus et Historiae, 1990, no. 22, p. 89-105. (BHA, 1992 #2264)

2. Croppel, E., The Petrifying Art: Marino?s Poetry and Caravaggio, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 1991, vol. 26, p. 193-212. (Art Index)

3. Friedlaender, Walter F., Caravaggio Studies, New York: Schocken Books, 1969. (reserve desk)

4. Hass, Angela, Caravaggio?s Calling of St. Matthew reconsidered, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1988, vol. 51, p. 245-50. (First Search)

5. Hibbard, H., Caravaggio, New York: Harpe and Kow, 1983. (reserve desk)

6. Hibbard, H., Caravaggio?s Two St. Matthews, Romiches Jahrbuch fair Kunstgeschichte, 1983, vol. 20, p. 181-91. (Art Index)

7. Puttfarken, Thomas, Caravaggio?s ?Story of St. Matthew?: a challenge to the conventions of painting, Art History, June 1998, vol. 21 no. 22, p. 163-81. (First Search)


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