Certainly one of the most gifted and original painters of all time, Caravaggio (1571–1610) was also a moral shipwreck of the first order. The dramatic play of shadows that is the characteristic mark of his style somehow reflects the darkness of a life lived in the company of prostitutes and hoodlums.
It is no accident that contemporaries found many of his works, like his life, to lack all decorum. The climax of Caravaggio’s notoriously erratic and tumultuous adventures — most of what we know of the man is drawn from police criminal records from the period — was his killing of a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni after a quarrel about either gambling or a woman. In any case, Caravaggio became a fugitive.
It was at this period, after Tomassoni’s death around 1610, with a price set upon the artist’s head, that the painter produced a remarkable and grim self-portrait of horrible, evocative power. The violent biblical motif of beheading runs like a bloody red thread through Caravaggio’s oeuvre: Judith dispatching Holofernes with a slow cut through the victim’s neck; Salome with the Baptist’s bloody pate on a plate.
So Caravaggio played a variation on this favorite theme. He hid his own likeness in the gigantic decapitated head of Goliath, dangling from young David’s hand. Pallid, gape-jawed, with uneven eyes, the desolate manslayer thus surrendered, pronouncing and executing the Lord’s just sentence upon himself.
On the great, borrowed sword that accomplished David’s deed, Caravaggio inscribed five encrypted letters: H-AS OS, standing for the Latin words humilitas occidit superbiam: “humility kills pride.” The shepherd boy fells the giant with a small, smooth stone, and with his brush the lawless rebel Caravaggio puts his sinful life to death. The image was sent to a cardinal protector in the papal court, and the painter found pardon.
It is impossible to know what depth of true repentance accompanied this graphic gesture and whether the earthly pardon is registered in heaven. What is clear is that Carvaggio understood something quite stark about the life-and-death drama of sin.
It is thus no surprise that he was also a master of biblical conversion scenes.
One of the most famous is the magnificent Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus (1601), hanging in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Here, knocked down from his high mount, Saul lies flat upon his back beneath the feet of his horse, eyes serenely closed before the light flooding onto his face. The persecutor’s two arms are outstretched in a sublimely ambiguous pose: at once groping out of his black blindness for direction and raised in absolute submission and surrender to Christ.
The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599), one of Caravaggio’s early breakthrough pieces, captures another marvelous and decisive moment with an unusual richness of movement and meaning. Jesus bursts into the room of busy tax collectors, yet remains still cloaked in the corner in the shadows holding the door. His feet are already turned to leave; they say clearly, “Follow me!”
With his outstretched hand, however, Christ also moves our eyes in the other direction, dramatically pointing a beam of light at the crowd of gathered sinners. The precise curve of his finger is a manifest visual quotation of Michelangelo’s iconic Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. The Lord is thus represented as the New Adam. He invites the greedy tax collector Matthew to become with him a new creation as he shines upon him the grace of election and illumination.
It is not only Jesus who points, however. Beside him at the door stands Peter, whose face is hidden, yet who also stretches out his finger in Matthew’s direction, as if to say, “That’s the one!” or perhaps “You can’t mean him!” If there is indeed a hint of moral surprise in the way the fisherman echoes his master’s gesture, it would be an eloquent object lesson of just how far into the depths of human sinfulness the Lord’s mercy means to reach.
[The Lord] invites the greedy tax collector Matthew to become with him a new creation.
Even the man who fell to his knees and told Jesus to depart, confessing that he was a sinful man, is alarmed to see the rabble Christ is gathering around him. A third, and final, central figure also points with his finger. This big, bearded man seated at the table is alarmed and appears to be saying, “Do you mean me?” This would certainly be an appropriate response. If we look more closely, however, he might just as well be excusing himself by pointing at his neighbor. This hunched-over man, lost entirely in his coins, is positioned at the exact opposite end of the picture from Jesus, whose presence he has not even acknowledged.
The depth of mercy can even reach that far: to the one who does not respond when Christ first calls, but who must be jostled into action. There at the opposite pole, this lost man anchors a little society of gaily clad mates that contrasts with the austere but vigorous community of disciples gathered around Jesus and represented by Peter — that is, the Church. The scene contrasts the City of Man with the City of God.
Caravaggio was in a special position to understand that the bright light of Christ’s pardon penetrates into the deepest night of sin. But black-and-white as all his chiaroscuro seems, Caravaggio’s bold vision did not lack nuance. The wonderful uncertainty he has captured concerning who is actually the target of Jesus’ words to this room of sinners corresponds to a subtle detail in the Gospel.
Jesus does not call Matthew (or Levi, as Luke calls him) by his name, as is the biblical custom: “Moses, Moses” or “Saul, Saul.” The invitation is open, addressed to the one who responds. “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9) is a word spoken to all. “Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:15).