Saint Matthew and the Angels
This piece caught my eye as I was browsing Baroque paintings. I thought Matthew rather resembled Davos Seaworth from the television adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire.
No? Maybe it’s just the beer. Anyway, I looked into the painting and found some interesting history on it, it turns out the first version was wasn’t cool enough for the Catholic Church so they had the painter re-do it to make it…more cool. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
It turns out the Church did not like their holy Saints being portrayed as everyday people, as was done in the first painting, despite the fact they were. The Church wanted to maintain the idea Saints are perfect humans who were heroic and everyone should aspire to be like them, probably including the halos. I can’t argue with that logic, so I won’t.
Among the many different influences in the Baroque period, the Council of Trent made one of the most significant contributions. The Catholic Church, helmed by Pope Paul III, created this council to counter the Protestant Reformation. Part of the Church’s strategy was to use the arts to reach the masses, so art became a way of telling Biblical stories rather than just portraying a singular person. The art became more dramatic with the use of lights and darks and the church hoped the emotional themes in the arts would “stimulate piety” in the country (1).
Saint Matthew and the Angel was a painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It depicts, to no one’s surprise, an angel visiting Saint Matthew. There is some interesting history behind this painting, or rather, paintings. The painting portrayed a rather lowly-looking man as Matthew being taught like a child by an angel, where the angel “forcefully pushes Matthew’s hand over the page of a heavy book, as if he were guiding an illiterate” (2). While the painting does portray Matthew as a commoner, it is meant to contrast God’s plan for humanity and the human perception of this plan. Even one of the greatest men is portrayed as a commoner or a fool, whereas the angel, a messenger of God, is painted beautifully. Unfortunately, the Church did not want this dirty visual interpretation of Matthew to be an aspiration for peasants and rehired Caravaggio to create a new version. This painting was destroyed during World War II but has been reproduced from pictures.
The new painting Caravaggio made gave Matthew a bit more dignity and instead the angel appears above him, giving him divine inspiration rather than divine dictation. This new piece was called The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and is the piece currently displayed. This painting, in my opinion, is much more showy than the first version. Matthew seems afraid of the angel and appears cowering away from it rather than being instructed. The angel’s hands and Matthew’s body look abnormal and staged and the angel’s wings are black, almost unnoticeable with the dark background. Matthew sports a halo on his head to appease the Catholic Church, who often portray Saints above regular people. The Catholic rejection of the first painting reveals the hypocrisy of the Church, which attempted to draw the common person in with the art but, in reality, had no desire for the commoners to be a part of it. Matthew is made to look a bit more heroic to bolster the egos of the Church. It is likely in the first piece two models were used, Caravaggio often used people from the streets which which he based his paintings.
(2) http://www.all-art.org/history252-4.html (quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica)
This updated version of Saint Matthew and the Angel is far superior to the original; Matthew’s feet are much less apparent due to his extra robing, as was a major complaint. Then angel is no longer as apparent with her black wings and Matthew’s glasses indicate he is educated and not common, just as his halo represents his sainthood. It looks as the angel may be massaging Matthew’s hand, possibly because of all the writing he has been doing.