Contarelli chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

(1599-1600, 1602)
   The Contarelli Chapel was Caravaggio's first public commission. It belonged to the French Cardinal Mattieu Cointrel (in Italian, Contarelli) who in 1585 left funds in his will for its decoration. According to Giovanni Baglione, Caravaggio received the commission through his patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who was a friend of Virgilio Crescenzi, the executor of Cointrel's will. The two scenes chosen, meant for the chapel's lateral walls, were from the life of St. Matthew, Cointrel's namesaint. The first, the Calling of St. Matthew, shows Christ pointing to the saint as if asking him to become one of his disciples — a gesture borrowed from Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the Sistine ceiling, Rome (1508-1512). Next to him is St. Peter, like Christ dressed all' antica to stand out against the rest of the protagonists who are garbed in theatrical costumes. St. Matthew, who was a tax collector, counts the money on the table, while a repoussoir figure in the foreground directs the viewer into the scene. Only the saint is aware of Christ's presence and the only one touched by the dramatic light that enters the room from a hidden source on the upper right. The eyeglasses of the figure standing by St. Matthew has been read as symbol of the shortsightedness of those who engage in the sin of usury. The second scene is the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, which proved to be a major challenge for Caravaggio. The contract stipulated that it take place in the interior of a church and include a large number of figures. X-rays reveal many pentimenti, with major changes to the setting and the scale of the figures. The final scene, inspired by Tintoretto's St. Mark Freeing a Christian Slave (1548; Venice, Galleria dell' Accademia), resulted in a successful rendition of a man who chose to die rather than renounce the faith—a timely subject for the era of the Counter-Reformation. The tenebristic lighting Caravaggio used in these two paintings and the strong diagonals included to enhance movement add to the theatricality and emotive quality of the works. In 1602, Caravaggio was called back to render his St. Matthew and the Angel for the altar wall. He painted a first version (destroyed in 1945) showing the saint writing his gospel guided by an angel, his crossed legs the attribute of scholars. The painting was rejected as the saint's perplexed expression in reaction to the angel guiding his hand was read as a sign of feeblemindedness and his exposed limbs were deemed indecorous. The rejected version was purchased by Vincenzo Giustiniani, who appreciated Caravaggio's intentions. Caravaggio then created a second version that presented St. Matthew as an ancient philosopher with a halo to denote his divinity and the angel enumerating the words of God rather than guiding the saint's hand. The Contarelli Chapel proved to be a major success and placed Caravaggio among the most sought-after masters of his era.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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