Paradoxical Naturalism in Caravaggio’s Calling of Matthew and Conversion of Saul
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT06320
(This essay was written in 1992 and was revised in 2007.)
Caravaggio introduced a new, lowly naturalism into Italian art which was taken up by many artists directly or indirectly across Europe. Caravaggesque painting featuring close-up compositions, foreshortened forms jumping out into the viewer’s space, and dark atmospheres pierced dramatically by theatrical light, the latter adding to the immediacy of sharply defined things. In this externalization of inner life, this radically physical approach to the sacred, Caravaggio extended the whole thrust of Renaissance Catholic art to make the sacred visible in emotionally charged, rhetorical forms.
At first glance, it seems Caravaggio’s naturalism restricted itself only to what the eye could see. This is the Caravaggio described in most textbooks and the artist seen by critics in the seventeenth century and later. Yet this artistic confrontation with mundane appearances also led Caravaggio to explore the limitations and weaknesses of both seeing and visual representation. In his work, God was not harmoniously present in the visible world but erupted violently within its lowly darkness like the downward slashing light seen in so many of his paintings. For example, Caravaggio’sCalling of Matthew sharply distinguished between the sacred figures at right, dressed in timeless robes and associated with a celestial light, and the contemporary Italian figures at left, who are either oblivious to the sacred figures or confused by their sudden intrusion.
Surely the more empirical elements of Caravaggio's new style appealed in a fairly straight-forward manner to a less sophisticated kind of uneducated, "pious" viewer. But for more sophisticated beholders, his art invited a gaze capable of going beyond the material and the natural, beyond even art itself toward a sense of the sacred described only clumsily by the traditional metaphor of "inner vision". Even here, we need to recognize the inadequacy of this language for such a radically empirical artist. Perhaps the best approach is to see how Caravaggio's art paradoxically heightened and undermined traditional dichotomies of body and soul, outer and inner, worldly and sacred. Even when Caravaggio's art askedviewers to go beyond the materiality of painting, his art always remained a highly original, tour-de-force of empirical description. Its most conspicuous feature was the very mundane, perceptual world whose limits it confronted.
In his radical empiricism and lowly naturalism, Caravaggio was untypical of Italian Baroque painting and his influence, though profound, was short-lived. With the exception of Annibale Carracci, no other Catholic artist in Italy was more influential between 1595 and 1615. And few artists were as influential in Catholic Spain as seen in the work of Ribera, Zurbaran, Murillo, and the young Velasquez (or in Catholic French artists like George de la Tour). By 1615, the Caravaggio moment had passed in Italy and his art was increasingly criticized there for a perceived vulgarity, baseness, and “mindless” description. This reading was grounded in the classicizing aesthetic ideals of mainstream Italian Baroque art produced by Carracci, Reni, Domenichino, Cortona, Gaulli, Sacchi, Giordano, and Pozzo. For the next two and a half centuries, Caravaggio was forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the 1950s.
Despite his great originality, Caravaggio was in most respects a profoundly Catholic artist who painted conventional subjects for official patrons in court and church culture. His many Catholic qualities encompassed style and subject matter as well as the location and purpose of his paintings. These Catholic qualities included his radical empiricism, his extroverted,visual piety, hisCounter-Reformation subjects (Marian piety, martyrdom of saints, conversion, religious writing as revelation and education, apostlesas missionaries), and his career painting large, official altarpieces decorating private chapels in Catholic churches.
Despite his Catholic qualities, Caravaggio’s art also offered a tension between outer and inner and a remarkable ability to delve into the mysterious, private, psychological aspects of religious feeling which appealed to Protestant regions as well, such as the 17th-century Netherlands where Caravaggio’s influence was particularly strong.
The Transformation of Genre Painting into Religious History
As a young, unknown North Italian painter recently arrived in Rome, Caravaggio began by painting genre scenes for high-ranking nobles and church officials. These unpretentious canvases depicted humble still-life, tavern scenes, fortune tellers, card sharps, and homoerotic nudes. After attracting the patronage of important patrons such as the nobleman, Vincenzo Giustiani and his friend, Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio gradually turned to more ambitious history painting eventually winning an important commission to paint three large scenes of the life of St. Matthew for a church in Rome. By adding two religious figures dressed in "timeless" robes to what was essentially a contemporary "tavern" scene in his Calling of St. Matthew(c. 1600), Caravaggio graduated to an innovative religious art combining a lowly naturalism with elevated subjects.
By combing a lowly style with a lofty subject, Caravaggio violated traditional classical decorum which required style to suit subject matter, outer appearance to fit inner reality. Indeed, the monks at the church - not the patron - rejected one of the three paintings of Matthew on the grounds that the coarse-looking, confused apostle lacked physical dignity and wisdom. Though his commissioned works were rejected twice again in later years, all three works were snapped up by leading collectors more sophisticated at recognizing both the artistic originality and subtle, paradoxical spirituality of Caravaggio's naturalism.
The success of Caravaggio’s few rejected works should warn us from seeing in Caravaggio the modern, Romantic myth of the genius-artist following a personal vision, ignoring conventions, despised by the public, and celebrated only after death. All great artists through the eighteenth century were recognized, understood, and celebrated in their day, especially Caravaggio. This does not mean we should miss the important historical significance of a major seventeenth-century artist whose innovations went too far for some of his contemporaries and led to the rejection of three paintings. Here was one, unanticipated consequence of the new, Renaissance idea of independent artistic vision, thought, and innovation. Taken to a new extreme by an artist like Caravaggio, theRenaissance artistic search for novelty and personal style had the potential for losing touch with mainstream audiences, especially the conservative monks who objected to a few of the artist’s works. (There is no indication these three rejected altarpieces were problematic for the courtly patrons who commissioned them.) The new issue of rejected works signalsone potential problem for art after the Renaissance, a potential problem which became real for a number of major artists much later in the Romantic period as artists like Friedrich and Turner became alienated from popular tastes and a general audience.
Caravaggio, Calling of Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi
(This is not a “Required Work” but it will help set the stage for the “Conversion of Saul”.)
Matteu Cointrel (Contarelli in Italian) was a French cardinal whose will endowed the decoration of a private chapel in a French church in Rome with scenes of his name saint, Matthew. TheCallingof Matthewwas Caravaggio's first large, multi-figure, public composition. Judging from the small, somewhat confused composition seen in Caravaggio’s first version of the Martyrdom of Matthew, he had some trouble dealing with the aesthetic problems posed by a larger, multi-figured work. He borrowed heavily on Titian and Raphael and even used Mannerist repoussoir figures (foreground motifs to set off space in the rear) as if uncertain how to devise a more original composition and more in need of earlier conventions and motifs.
In contrast, he approached the Calling by building on what he knew best, a table with figures around it but set it back into a deeper space to which he added Christ and a disciple on the right. Here genre (everyday life) was elevated into true theater with light and darkness assuming a new voice and power in conveying the drama. Sweeping down into the dark world parallel to Christ's hand, the light of God called Matthew away from darkness of his monetary concerns to a new life. The theme of sight and blindness also found in the Supper atEmmaus is clear here in the short-sighted man with the eyeglass (at times wrongly said to be Matthew), who peers blindly at worldly goods and completely misses the presence of Christ.
On one level, the Calling uses its striking, genre naturalism to call the real viewer just as Christ's left hand calls out in strong foreshortening towards the beholder. On the other hand, the obliviousness or incomprehension of all the figures at the table suggests the limited ability of human beings to follow Christian direction and guidance. Even the pointing Matthew seems unsure of who Christ is callingand why. He remains seated, unable for now to comprehend or respond to Christ's command. The sacred figures are not from the genre world inhabited by Matthew. They wear timeless robes, bring divine light into the dark, sinful world, and they stand off to the far right of the composition as if to emphasize the distance between the two realms. Thus itmakes no sense to see Caravaggio's naturalism simply as a Counter-Reformation translation of the sacred down into vivid, familiar reality. If anything, he plays on familiar reality here only to heighten its distance from the sacred while allowing for the possibility of surprising connections, revelations, and new awareness.
The strange proximity of the money to the bent, staring eyes of the man at far left, the farthest from Christ, might shed light on the equally strange decision to hide Christ behind a disciple figure at the far right of the composition. Was Caravaggio trying to show the real viewer how hard it was to see spiritual matters amid the pressing, everyday world of material needs and concerns? Without reducing this to a medieval, monastic dichotomy of a sacred and profane, light and dark, vision and blindness, was Caravaggio trying to use visual means - painting - to invite his viewers to see with a greater complexity and depth?
Despite its unorthodox approach to the subject, we should not miss the important Catholic qualities of the painting and of the larger cycle in which is stood including scenes of Matthew Writing the Gospel and the Martyrdom of Matthew. The Calling of Matthewcelebrates a man who converted and followed the divine call to service. As such it affirmed Counter-Reformation ideas of preaching and conversion, on the one hand, and obedience to divine authority on the other. The scene of Matthew Writing the Gospel also affirmed Catholic ideas of divine revelation as truth handed down from above as well as Counter-Reformation ideas on writing and religious education. And the painting of Matthew’s death affirmed the Catholic cult of martyrs. More generally, the whole cycle celebrated a saint who serves as an intermediating figure in the larger Catholic hierarchy. Finally, the cycle of paintings contributed to the visual piety of Catholicism and the central importance of church art for worship and teaching.
Caravaggio, Conversion of Saul, 1600-1601
Background on the Commission and the Subject
Caravaggio's second major public commission was a Crucifixion of Peter and a Conversion of Saul for the Cerasi Chapel in a major Roman church. Peter and Paul (Saul) were both apostles, that is, men who spread Christianity after Christ’s death by preaching far and wide, converting thousands. At a time when Counter-Reformation piety placed a premium on preaching, publishing, and missionary work to combat heresy in Northern Europe and spread the “true faith” to all corners of the world, the apostles took on new importance as a subject. None was more important than Paul, in large part because of his dramatic conversion from “false belief “(Judaism) but also because he wrote so much of the New Testament.
Saul was a Jew working for the Romans in persecuting Christians. His conversion on the road to Damascus is described in the Bible.
"suddenly a light from heaven shined round about him. And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?' ... the men who went in company with him, stood amazed ... when Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing" (Acts 9:3-8).
Three days later, Saul recovered his sight, was baptized, and took on a new name. As Paul, he wrote most of the New Testament Epistles. In these fundamental Christian texts, Paul stressed sin, humility, and the faith needed to confront the paradoxes and mysteries of an incomprehensible God.
The Equestrian Fall
The Conversion of Saul was not an important subject in religious art until the Renaissance when conversion, preaching, and personal spiritual experience took on new importance. Needless to say, the subject assumed greater importance with the rise of the Reformation (1518-) and the Counter-Reformation (1550-). The Bible described Saul walking to the Damascus and falling to the ground when he hears the voice from heaven.
To introduce new physical and spiritual drama to the subject, fourteenth-century manuscript illuminators introduced into the Conversion of Saul the medieval allegorical image of Pride tumbling to the ground from a high horse. At a time when the aristocracy defined itself as an equestrian class, mounted on lavishly dressed horses, this late medieval innovation capitalized on the rise of penitential piety and anxieties about worldliness to dramatize Saul’s transformation from proud knight to humble Christian, from power to dependency, from courtly wealth to monastic holy poverty.
Since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a peak in anti-Semitism, one wonders if the falling Saul also helped dramatize the divine punishment of an “evil Jew” not unlike fourteenth and fifteenth century crucifixions where Christ’s right arm reaches down from the cross to crown an equestrian Ecclesia while his left arm fatally stabs Synagoga mounted on an ass. Whatever its significance, the equestrian fall caught on quickly and became the standard in most depictions of the subject by 1500.
We don’t see many large, independent images of the Conversion of Saul until after 1500 when Raphael, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Parmigianino took up the theme for church and court patrons. Most of these earlier Italian paintings expanded the sparse Biblical narrative to show not only Paul's amazed companions but rearing horses below and a Christ flanked by a heavenly host above. And all of them show Saul as Paul, as a wise, strong apostle who remains heroic even in his fall, and often grandly posed like a reclining Roman river god.
Caravaggio replaced daylight with a mysterious and more private darkness, eliminated the larger dramatic spectacle, and replaced God with a supernatural light which appears only dimly in the upper right. He also transformed the apostle Paul back into the persecutor Saul, a young, coarse soldier placed in a vulnerable and undignified position on his back, his face upside down and all but unintelligible visually. This was a pose which Baroque art usually given in to evil doers cast down by triumphant victors (such as Prometheus Bound, Apollo and Marsyas). Although Raphael’s tapestry for the Sistine Chapel (1514) depicted an armored Saul on his back with arms spread, Raphael’s Saul was carefully placed in the well-lit space for maximal legibility with none of Caravaggio’s foreshortening. And he gave much of his composition over to a common horse who displays none of the heroic drama seen in Parmigianino or Michelangelo.
All of these many changes were consistent with Caravaggio’s artistry and with the great success his art enjoyed for about 30 years before tastes turned dramatically against all forms of vulgar naturalism. Although we now dismiss the later condemnation of Caravaggio as a misunderstanding of his art or as the application of narrow aesthetic standards based on classical and Italian Renaissance art, the attacks on Caravaggio can help us comprehend his dramatic innovations. Here, for example, is Bernard Berenson, the world’s greatest authority on Italian art in the first half of the twentieth century and a man whose aesthetic standards were rounded in the Italian Renaissance.
"We are to interpret this charade as the conversion of Paul. Nothing more incongruous than the importance given to horse over rider, to dumb beast over saint. Surely more picaresque than holy. No trace of a miraculous occurrence of supreme import".