Saint Matthew being assassinated The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew caravaggio

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew: A Chiaroscuro Masterpiece

Like any other painting by Caravaggio, “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” is an exceptional example of his mastery in the chiaroscuro technique. A single source of light touches only the subjects in the painting leaving the background in almost complete darkness. The viewer is too engaged in the drama to notice where the event is taking place. On close observation, you can see some subtle details that reveal where the scene is set. This intricate interplay of emotions and lighting makes the painting as compelling as it is. Here’s a detailed breakdown and analysis of “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”.

Why was Matthew Killed?

Saint Matthew was one of the gospel writers, spreading the word of Christianity in Ethiopia. During his time in Ethiopia, he came to know that the king was interested in his niece. Matthew strongly objected to his intentions because she was a nun. This implied that the niece was the bride of Jesus. Since Saint Matthew was a priest his opinion was extremely valuable. To get rid of him, the King sent an assassin to kill Saint Matthew. 

Where is the painting now? 

Caravaggio’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” is located in the a San Luis de France, a church in Rome. Another painting by Caravaggio titled “The Calling of Saint Matthew” is also located in the same church. The two paintings are hung on opposite walls to one another. 

About the Painting

The painting was originally ordered for the church by Cardinal Contarelli. However, he could not put out the order formally. It was finally ordered by Cardinal Del Monte. Before his death, Contarelli wrote down in detail what the painting should showcase. His written instructions are as follows

Saint Matthew being assassinated The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew caravaggio
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio. Public Domain.

“…in the form of a temple, with the altar raised up…where Saint Matthew dressed in vestments to celebrate the mass is killed by the hand of soldiers, and it might be more artistic to show the moment of being killed, where he is wounded and already fallen, or falling but not yet dead, while in the temple there are many men, women, young and old people, and children, mostly in different attitudes of prayer, and dressed according to their station and nobility… most of them terrified by the event, others appalled and still others filled with compassion.”

As we analyze the painting step by step you’ll realize that Caravaggio painted this piece almost exactly as instructed. “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” is a large oil on canvas piece with dimensions of 323x343cm.

The Setting of the Painting

Fundamental to Caravaggio’s art, the scene is dramatic, almost theatrical. The purpose is to arouse feelings of religious devotion and respect toward Christ and Saint Matthew. 

It’s the moment right after the assassin has stabbed Saint Matthew. The artist has given the subjects enough time to realize what has occurred. Thus, he captures the exact instant of chaos and movement on the canvas. The fact that Matthew has been already stabbed is clear from the blood on his white clothes. In an attempt to make the painting more minimal, not much of the background is visible. However, an altar with a candle on it is visible which suggests that the event is taking place in a church.

The Subjects in the Painting

There are thirteen subjects in this painting, where two are the protagonists positioned in the center. The third most important subject is the angel in the top right corner. Apart from these three subjects the people in the church are scared, horrified, and even screaming. Some are trying to flee the scene while others just look at the assassination in shock. 

Caravaggio mentally involves his viewers by depicting the psychology of the subjects. The manner in which the figures react to each other gives rise to an emotional narrative that leaves a mark on the audience. In the bottom right corner are two young men who were probably waiting to be baptized as is discernable from their clothes. These men are pulling themselves away from the scene into a corner. The man on the bottom left has his hands extended away from the scene in an attempt to crawl away from danger.

It’s not just Matthew who is completely defenseless, the church-goers are equally vulnerable. A man in the top left corner holds on to his sword in defense as he moves away from the scene. At the very back of the scene, Caravaggio has included himself in this painting. He uses a self-portrait to convey his personal feelings toward the event. His face shows visible concern as his hand reaches out toward the scene in an attempt to defend Matthew.

Analysis of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

At first glance, it may seem as if Matthew is trying to defend himself with his right hand. However, his hand is the key to something more important. Matthew is actually reaching out to the angel that has appeared above him. The angel may be seen handing a palm leaf to Matthew. The palm leaf is a symbol of martyrdom in Christianity. Therefore instead of resisting his death, Matthew is metaphorically reaching out for it. Even though Matthew’s face is not clearly visible, to a Christian, attaining martyrdom is a joyous moment. His reaction to being stabbed shows that his faith is stronger than his will to live. Matthew leaves his body in the house of god, in a church. While the other people are occupied by the assination it is only Matthew who is calm and aware of the angel’s presence. 

Caravaggio has deviated slightly from his signature style of using only a single source of light in a painting. Even though there is only one primary spotlight, there is a less noticeable second source of light. On the top left corner where the angel has emerged, we can see subtle streams of Devine light falling on the clouds. Only Saint Matthew’s face is fully lit, while other people’s faces are partially in the dark.

 Another important contrast that Caravaggio has used is in the strength of the two protagonists. The young assassin is muscular, strong, and clearly dominant. While Matthew is much older, recoiled on the floor, not resisting his imminent death. 

The Composition of the Painting

The moment you try to decipher the shape of the composition it is quite apparent that it takes the shape of an X. This shape is made by the light touching the most volatile portions of the painting. From bottom left to top right and bottom right to top left the most important facets of the painting lies on these lines. 

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew
The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew – Details. Public Domain

The most important event in the canvas can be simplified in the form of a triangle. This triangle is situated toward the right of the geometric center. The subjects involved are Saint Matthew, the assassin, and the angel. The assassin and the angel are both reaching out to Saint Matthew while he is trying to grasp the palm of martyrdom. The fact that the leaf hasn’t touched Matthew’s hand shows that he is still alive.

When we look at the scene at first, the lines of sight automatically throw us in the middle. Once you look at the center, Matthew’s eyes and hand take you upward toward the Angel. 

Conclusion

“The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” was created during a time when sophistication and elegance were revered in the art world. Caravaggio took a risk when he painted a realistic, dramatic and raw scene, not adhering to the confines of mannerism. His dramatism was not well received by the older art critics however it was attractive to the young artists. Caravaggio’s authenticity eventually gave rise to the Baroque art movement. The theatrical feature of Baroque helped in replenishing faith by allowing the viewers to get involved in the scene. The painting was not the first Baroque art piece but it is still considered a turning point in the development of art.

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