The "Vocazione di San Matteo" (1599-1600) by the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio lends itself, both for the words of the Gospel on which it is inspired and for its rich symbolism, to a theological commentary. The chromatic contrasts, typical of the baroque technique of chiaroscuro, the expressiveness of the faces and the intensity of the gazes, and many other small details, immediately capture the attention of the observer. The same can be said of some elements or objects whose meaning is not understood at first glance, such as, for example, the fact that the blind window located at the top has large proportions, when the light that dominates the scene does not enter through it.
Important aspects of the table
A first glance at the lower part of the painting, delimited by the horizontal projection of the base of the window, reveals a group of seven people. In the upper part it is possible to see, from left to right, an area of darkness, a window and the entrance of a ray of light.
In the lower part, we can see a first group of five people gathered around a tax collection table, which suggests that they are engaged in the tax collection trade or, at least, that they collaborate in that trade. They are dressed in the style of the 15th-16th century, that is, of Caravaggio's time. In the second group, by contrast, we can distinguish two figures dressed in ancient tunics, characteristic of the time of Christ. It can be said, therefore, that between the two groups of people a temporal separation is symbolized. From the point of view of the composition of the painting, the line that separates the present from the past is the projection of the vertical median of the window.
In the group of collectors, first of all, the progressive variety of ages that characterizes the group is striking: the boy in yellow and red, almost a child, with a candid and innocent look; another boy in black and white, with the features and bearing of an adolescent; the one in red and blue, who seems to have already reached a certain maturity; the bearded and mature man in the center and, finally, the old man, half bald and nearsighted.
Some objects carried or used by the collectors are also striking: a showy white feather hat (the second one is in the half-light), a sword, a money bag tied to the belt, the coins and the account book on the table and also a pair of glasses. It could be understood that these are objects more or less characteristic of the trade.
It is therefore not difficult to see a symbolism in this characterization. There is the collector in all the stages of his profession (from apprenticeship to retirement), and, if you want, with a broader vision, the man of all times in the various stages of his life. The collection table and the objects already described are like a staging of the world with its characteristic elements: beauty and vanity, power and strength, money and the desire for profit, and a certain eagerness for self-sufficient wisdom. It is the usual and characteristic place of vocation: man immersed in the cares of the world.
The two figures on the right are both standing. Christ is clearly singled out by the halo on his head. It is noteworthy that only his face is illuminated, partially in the half-light, and his right hand, completely extended. The gaze conveys determination, and the hand, strongly evocative of the gesture it assumes, suggests both empire and softness. The feet, barely perceptible in the half-light, are not in the direction of the face and the hand, but are almost perpendicular to them, in the direction of departure, in line with the Gospel text: "When he was going away from there, he was going out of the house"., As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew". The left arm and left hand are also barely discernible in the half-light, and the open position in which they are found suggests invitation and welcome.
The second figure -according to common opinion- was added later by Caravaggio himself. It almost completely covers the figure of Christ and it can be affirmed with certainty that it is St. Peter, since he carries in his hand the staff of the shepherd, in charge of shepherding the flock. Peter, in fact, was constituted as the first successor of the Good Shepherd according to the commission he received from him: "Feed my sheep" (cf. Jn 21:16). His position so close to Christ confirms him as his disciple, as does the gesture of his left hand, which is like a replica of the gesture of the Master's hand. His feet, like those of Christ, are in movement, but not in the direction of the exit, but directed towards the interior of the scene.
The relative position, the tonality of the colors, the gestures and movements of the figures of Christ and Peter have a significance. Peter's body almost completely hides Christ and leaves behind him only the face and hand of the Master. His dull and tired appearance contrasts with Christ's youthful bearing, empire and energy.
Hence the figure of Peter can be interpreted as a symbol of the Church: he transmits from generation to generation the gestures and words of Christ, even if he does not always succeed in doing so with the original strength and splendor, due to the fragile human condition of those who compose it. The direction in which she turns, towards the table, confirms her mission of being in the world, in the midst of men; and the staff she carries in her hand, her condition of pilgrim throughout history, until the end of time.
Elements of the upper part
The upper part of the painting, in contrast to the scene depicted in the lower one, is of absolute simplicity and stillness. It consists of only three elements: the ray of light entering from the right, a blind window and an area of complete darkness. The only sign of movement is the beam of light entering the scene, but in such a serene and stable way that it seems motionless. It is possible to understand the relationship of these three elements according to the resource of contrast, so typical of baroque painting: the window is the border between light and darkness.
But now, shouldn't we ask ourselves if the parts of the painting, with meaning and significance in themselves, do not form a whole, a unity of meaning, as happens in every masterpiece? For example, is the window closely related to Mateo's vocation? The answer is obviously yes. There is a unity of meaning and there is also a key to the compression of the whole painting. That key is the outstretched hand of Christ. And now we will see why.
Christ's hand is not in the geometric center of the painting, but at the dramatic crossroads of the scene. There converge the line that joins the gaze of Christ and the tax collector seated at the center of the table; the projection of the vertical median of the window that, as already mentioned, constitutes a temporal border of the scene: the group of tax collectors on the left, in the present, Christ and Peter on the right, in the past; and, thirdly, the diagonal formed by the ray of light that seems to govern the direction of Christ's hand.
The gesture of Christ's hand is quite unique and does not go unnoticed to the eye of those who know the Roman art of the time and the rooms of the Vatican. It is an evocation of the scene of the creation painted by Michelangelo Buonaroti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Christ's right hand is a mirror replica of Adam's left hand. Hence it can be said that Christ is represented as a new Adam: "For if by the fall of the one man all died, how much more did the grace of God and the gift that is given in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to all" (cf. Rom 5:15).
Hence it is also clear that vocation is a grace intimately linked to the creation of each man, since it is what gives meaning to his existence. But because it is precisely the right hand of Christ and because Christ not only has the human nature of Adam, but also the divine nature of God the Father, that hand is the image of the omnipotent power and will of the Father: the finger of God.
On the other hand, the blind, opaque and simple window, as already mentioned, does not fulfill the function of letting light into the scene. Its function is symbolic and very important, given its dimensions. It hides something that usually goes unnoticed and is even despised: the cross. In the context of the painting, it can be interpreted as the cross of Christ. Placed on high, just above the Master's hand, it is the sign of the Christian and the place where Christ brings to fulfillment his own vocation: to give his life for the salvation of the world.
The cross is the way of life for the one who has received the vocation and wants to be a disciple of Christ: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me". (Mt 16:24). Finally, it is the means to attain salvation and beatitude, the goals of the Christian vocation. Not only Christ died in it, but also Peter and Matthew. Both gave proof of their faithfulness as disciples of Christ and crowned their own vocation.
The cross, placed in the composition of the painting as a frontier between light and darkness, symbolizes, then, the instrument that allows to settle the permanent opposition between good and evil, truth and lie, and, in the case of vocation, between indecision and the passage of faith.
Who is Mateo?
Finally, one might ask who of the five collectors is Matthew, since from the point of view of contemporary criticism it has been questioned whether he is the bearded collector in the center, on whom the observer's gaze is naturally focused.
First of all, there is a common element that allows us to characterize each of the seven characters that make up the scene: the gaze. There is an intense play of glances that dominates the silent communication between the characters and fills the instant with dramatic tension. The two collectors on the left keep their gaze fixed on the money that is on the table, absolutely absorbed in it and without even noticing the presence of Christ and the other one on the right. Pedro.
They symbolize that portion of men who, immersed in the material, are as if incapable of perceiving the presence and existence of God and of all that is spiritual. The other three tax collectors, on the other hand, have their eyes fixed on Christ and Peter who, like two mysterious visitors from the past, have suddenly burst onto the scene. They, too, look at the tax collectors. There is, however, only one crossing of gazes that is explicitly singled out: that of Christ and that of the tax collector in the center. Both cross each other in Christ's outstretched hand.
Secondly, it does not seem to be by chance that the gesture of the hand of Christ, Peter and the tax collector in the center are presented in trio: the hand of Christ is the hand of the one who calls; the hand of Peter, the hand of the one who has already been called; and the hand of the tax collector, the hand of the one who is being called. Filled with astonishment and perplexity, he wonders if he is the one being called or if it is his companion seated on his right, at the end of the table.
Thirdly, in the group of collectors there are only two faces visible almost completely and specially illuminated. The one that shines the brightest is the small one in yellow and red, with a white feathered hat. It is not possible to establish with certainty the origin of the source that illuminates him. In the case of the collector in the center, it is clear that the light that illuminates his face does not come from Christ. It comes from the diagonal beam of light. His face is literally framed by the projection of the upper and lower part of that ray, whose origin or source is not possible to see.
Hence it can be said that the collector in the center is precisely Matthew. The soft ray of light that reaches his face is but a symbol of the grace that comes from above, that is, from God the Father. God the Father who is in heaven, transcendent to the world, but condescending to men, has always been considered the invisible, inaccessible and mysterious source of all grace. The immutable and serene tone of the ray of light, which introduces balance and harmony into the scene, symbolizes the timeless origin of that which is prior to vocation, that is, election. The one who chooses is God the Father.
The point of confluence of the soft ray of light, of the gaze and of the hand of Christ, is also the face of the collector of the center. Christ, seconding the will of the Father, actualizes in time the eternal election, and calls: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (...) for in him he chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love" (Eph 1:4).
The answer to vocation
Now it only remains to wait for the free response from the one who has been chosen and called. From the one who still has his right hand close to the money. It is precisely the instant immortalized by Caravaggio.
By way of conclusion, a question and a consideration: did the artist's creative intuition lead him to interpret in his work the precise moment of Matthew's vocation, not only in a masterly way from the aesthetic point of view, but also with astonishing theological depth... We do not know. What is clear is that the "Vocazione di San Matteo" is still there, in the Contarelli chapel of the church "San Luigi dei Francesi" a few steps from "Piazza Navona", in Rome, causing admiration and amazement in those who contemplate it.
However, one detail cannot go unnoticed: the table represented in the painting, around which the tax collectors are gathered, leaves a free space in the angle where the observer necessarily stands. That emptiness seems to be an invitation for the observer of the 16th century, of the 21st century and of every era to leave his passive contemplation and enter the scene as one more character... And, perhaps, ask himself the decisive question, the most important one: the question about his own vocation, why and for what am I in this world?