Saint Matthew and the Angel

10/8/2013

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.

Davos-3x01Photo source: images1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130401190356/gameofthrones/images/9/9c/Davos-3×01.jpg

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.

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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.

www.mikeyangels.co.ukPhoto source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngels.jpg

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.

The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_CaravaggioPhoto source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio.jpg

(1) http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~fellows/hart206/baroque.htm

(2) http://www.all-art.org/history252-4.html (quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngelsThis 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.

2 responses to “Saint Matthew and the Angel

  1. I think that you picked awesome pictures for your argument! You spoke about the light and dark contrasts and these pictures signify a great deal of extreme light and dark contrast. I also like how you added some humor into your writing, it makes it more enjoyable to read. You seem to have done a really good job doing your research and you know this era well! Another thing to note about the Council of Trent was that they wanted to make art more available and accessible to other people then just the educated high class. They wanted to make art easier to understand. The works of art that you chose also really make your argument about the art during this time telling biblical stories.

  2. I loved your comment on the hypocrisy of the church! It was interesting to see the bias of the church for people of higher status. I think this was due to the rise in the merchant class. I wonder if maybe the first portrait was too scary for the church. It seemed everyone was getting over mannerism and that contained many scary textures. Do you think that if the first painting was created with the same tempo of emotion but directed into a more calming serene manner that they would have banned it?

Say something, I guess.

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