Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dirty Feet by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Caravaggio was kept busy by other commissions as well as by the demands of the Mattei family during the first three years of the century. Early in 1602, several months before painting The Betrayal of Christ, he had learned that he was required once more at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Although more than a year had passed since Caravaggio had finished the lateral canvasses for the Contarelli Chapel , the completion of the whole decorative scheme had been delayed by the prevarications of Jacob Cobaert. At the end of January 1602 the tardy Flemish sculptor finally delivered his marble altarpiece of Mathew and the angel, still partially incomplete. It was instantly rejected by the increasingly irritable and fractious coalition of Mathieu Cointrel’s executors. Just eight days later Caravaggio was asked to replace the sculpted altarpiece with a painting of the same subject. Mathew was to be shown writing his gospel. The contract specified that he must be depicted taking dictation from an angel; those were the only two figures required. It was a clear brief, but its execution would prove to be far from straightforward and Caravaggio would end up having to paint two visions of the picture. The root of the problem would be his depiction of the saint’s feet.

Caravaggio’s first Mathew and the Angel for the Contarwelli Chapel eventually passed to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Like the lost portrait of Fillide, it was destroyed by fire during the Second World War, but a record of its appearance is preserved in black-and-white photographs. The painter created a powerfully sculptural composition. Mathew and his attendant angel, a tender winged boy who guides the saint’s writing hand, form a single monumental group. The evangelist sits with his body twisted effortfully around the great book in his lap. His shoulders are hunched, his neck arched forward so that he can peer at the text. The gleaming white pages of the book and the dark jerkin that he wears obscure and interrupt much of his anatomy. His body is reduced to its component elements: balding, bearded head on a bull neck; gnarled hands and forearm; bare legs and heavy feet; toes thrust almost into the viewers face. His Mathew in an aggressively inelegant, proletarian figure, conceived along the lines of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel and very different from the pale-skinned tax-gatherer or the heroic fallen priest depicted in Caravaggio’s earlier pictures for the chapel. The suggestion is that he is both writing and reading for the first time, like a peasant made suddenly and miraculously literate.

Because Mathew has just started writing his gospel, the painter shows its opening lines: “The book of the generation of Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Mathew, aided by the angel, is about to finish the next phrase, ‘Abraham begat’, which marks the start of the gospel’s tracing of the lineage of Christ. As the bloodline leading to the salvation of mankind is announced, Mathew stares in wonder… a wizened, sunburned figure receives the very first divinely inspired Christian text, Mathew is bathed in light. Through him the whole world will be illuminated.

As so often during this phase of his career, Caravaggio defines his own art by contrast with that of Michelangelo. Once more, he has the Sistine Chapel in mind, specifically the vast, sculptural figures of the prophets who sit enthroned at the level of the pendentive arches. Michelangelo’s monumental figures, like Caravaggio’s Mathew, are shown in the spasms of divine revelation, reading or writing the prophesies vouchsafed to them by God. Also like Carrivaggio’s Mathew, they are barefoot, and often accompanied by inspiring angelic figures.

Caravaggio’s St Mathew, however, perfectly reverses all the properties of the Michelangelesque figure of the prophet. Michelangelo’s prophets are nobly idealized figures, decorously draped, but Caravaggio’s Mathew is an ordinary, imperfect human being in working clothes that leave his arms and legs bare. Michelangelo depicts troubled intellectuals, straining to grasp God’s veiled meanings, but Caravaggio’s sainted peasant is a simple man stunned by the directness of his revelation. Whereas Michelangelo’s prophets sit on carved thrones of marble, Caravaggio’s apostle sits on a simple wooden chair, the same savonarola chair already used for the Calling of Mathew and the Supper at Emmaus.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the painting is the intimacy of the relationship between the stooped saint and the tender young angel, whose wings enfolds the whole scene in a hushed embrace. The angel is God’s messenger but also the embodiment of Christian love – a love so generous it encompasses even those as ragged and gnarled as the cross-legged, doltish St. Mathew. The contrast between the two figures is the contrast between extreme youth and encroaching old age. Frailty is being overcome, an old man is being made young by the teachings of a child, which are the teachings of Christ himself, and the writing of the first word of the gospel marks the very instant when the Old Testament is being replaced by the New.

Despite or more likely because of its brusque singularity Caravaggio’s picture ‘pleased nobody’, according to Baglione. The St Mathew was rejected as soon as it was delivered. Bellori gave the fullest account of events: ‘Here something happened that greatly upset Caravaggio with respect to his reputation. After he had finished the central picture of St Mathew and installed on the altar, the priests took it down, saying that the figure with its legs crossed and its feet rudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.’ That was, of course, precisely Caravaggio’s point: Christ and his followers looked a lot more like beggars than cardinals. But the decision of Mathieu Cointrel’s executors was final. Saving Caravaggio’s blushes, Vincenzo Giustiniani took the painting of St Mathew for his own collection and then prevailed upon the congregation to allow the painter to try again.

The resulting picture, the second version of St Mathew and the Angel was accepted without demur. It remains on the altar of the chapel. Mathew the shockingly illiterate peasant has suddenly been turned into Mathew the dignified, grey-haired sage. The a scholar-saint kneels at his desk, quill pen at the ready. He is draped in red robes and has been equipped with an expression of dignified attentiveness. Rather than guiding his uncertain hand, the angel now counts off the verses as he dictates them. The pages of the book are no longer visible, but since the angel has got to the index finger of his left hand – number two, in the gestural rhetoric of the time, since Italians counted the number one with their thumbs- it seems that he has once more got to the start of the second verse, and Abraham’s begetting of Christ’s lineage. The angel’s airborne arrival from behind Mathew closely echoes the composition of Tintoretto’s Virgin Appearing to St Jerome, which Caravaggio may have seen in Venice. There is no suggestion of intimacy here. A message is not vouchsafed tenderly as an act of love, but handed down from on high as an emanation of divine authority.

Caravaggio’s second St Mathew and the Angel is a much diluted, dutifully toned-down version of his original idea. Mathew’s poverty and humility are not rudely proclaimed, but politely whispered. The most tellingly emphatic of the painter’s several adjustments relate to the apostle’s feet. They are shown in profile rather than thrust towards the viewer, still bare but unlikely to offend anybody.

For the first but not the last time, Caravaggio’s work has been censored. His sin when painting the first St Mathew had been to make holy poverty and humility unpalatably real. On this occasion his embarrassment was spared by Vincenzo Giustiniani, but Giustiniani’s purchase itself created a paradox. A work of art expressly designed to articulate ideals of popular piety to appeal to the broadest possible audience*, had been deemed unsuitable for mass consumption. Instead, the picture had found a home in the collection of a noted connoisseur. The implication was that there was something dangerous, even seditious, about Caravaggio’s emphatically humble vision of the origins of Christianity. In a prominent church, such an intoxicatingly powerful painting might serve as a rallying cry. It might have an influence. Its visual language might help shape the visual language of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church. But confined to the collection of a rich man, it became something much less potent: an interesting work of art, an experiment in a new style, but altogether too strange and adventurous for anyone but a sophisticate and his friends to appreciate

*following the important influence of Milan’s Cardinal Borromeo on Caravaggio’s early development.

Caravaggio; A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon; W.W. Norton &Co.; New York, 2010


  1. The Catholic Church was moving decisively away from the severe Counter-Reformation piety embodied so powerfully in Caravaggio’s work. The religious attitudes he had grown up with in Milan were falling increasingly out of favour among those in positions of power. Carlo Borromeo’s belief that the princes of the Church should clothe themselves in humility and model their lives on those of Christ’s poor disciples was falling terminally out of fashion. Poverty and the poor were there to be controlled, regulated, put in their place. In parallel, the idea that Christian art should exalt poverty was increasingly regarded as eccentric and distasteful by senior churchmen, from the pope downwards. It was the function of art to hymn the majesty of God in his heaven – and therefore to bathe the papal court and upper hierarchies of the Church in the reflected glory of that higher, celestial court. Like the art of Caravaggio, the art favoured by a newly triumphalist Church aimed at the poor as well as the rich. But its approach was different. It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was here to awe, daunt and stupefy them, to impress them, with visions of a force so [powerful it could not be resisted – and must, therefore, be obeyed.

  2. For all his sensitivity and genius, there could ultimately be no place in this new Baroque sensibility for an artist such as Caravaggio.