Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Caravaggio in Rome 2010: The apocalyptic invasion

The city of Rome and its challenges

Three weeks after my three weeks in Rome, I am still in a state of intellectual, theological, and emotional stupefaction. That is only a slight exaggeration. A character in the Merchant-Ivory film about the British Raj, Heat and Dust, says, “India changes you.” Well, Rome changes you. I suppose there are some who can go to Rome and spend the time eating, clubbing, and shopping, but anyone who is alert to the challenges of this unique city is going to experience some loss of comfort along with exhilaration.

--What is the meaning of Empire? What causes the collapse of Empire? How could the ancient Romans have been so exceptionally civilized and so exceptionally cruel at one and the same time? What legacy from republican Rome do we want to claim? What from imperial Rome? Was Constantine really a Christian? Was his conversion good or bad for the church? etc.

--What is the relationship of the earliest Christian worship spaces in Rome to the New Testament church? Why does the earliest Christian iconography depict a beardless Good Shepherd? Why did that change? Why did the fresh wind of the apostolic gospel so quickly decline into the didactic mode of the First Epistle of Clement? Why is the church of San Clemente so singularly moving nevertheless?

--What is the meaning of the Middle Ages? What currents were going on in Rome during the post-imperial time of decline and decay that still managed to produce such gorgeous medieval churches?

--What is the relationship of papal Rome with its incomparable and overwhelming collections of art and architecture to the true practice of the faith? Is a euro deposited in the box that lights up a Caravaggio as valuable to the Lord’s work as a euro given to a beggar in the church portico? (for that matter, whither the euro?)

--What about all the veneration of relics and statues? What about the candles and the cult of the saints? What about the overpowering presence of the Counter-Reformation? What about the corruption and just plain wickedness that made the papal art collections possible? What about the churches as “junk shops of idolatrous baroque bric-a-brac” (Georgina Masson quotes this in her revered guidebook)? Should a thoroughly convinced Reformed theologian suspend disbelief? (Reader, she did.)

--How is the Roman Catholic Church doing in its time of travail? To what degree is it still in denial? What were all the Holy Week pilgrims thinking? How should the rest of us be reacting? Can we really consider ourselves superior? And how is The Great Church doing, for all the disdain heaped upon it?

One response, from a radical Christian perspective

Here is a series of ruminations set in motion by the single most exciting thing we saw in Rome (My husband agrees. We bought a large reproduction to frame for his/our office.) I am speaking of The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the three paintings in Caravaggio’s “Matthew cycle” in the Contarini Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, near the Piazza Navona. [Go to and type “Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew” into the Search box, but be aware that the reproductions are not very good.]

I went three times to see the painting. Unfortunately, because of the way it is positioned on the wall of the chapel, it isn’t possible to examine it closely, so one must rely partially upon reproductions which are never good enough. Nevertheless, I will try to be faithful to the actual painting while recording my overpowering impressions.

The Art Resource web site helpfully inserts a Dutch painting of the calling of Matthew alongside the Caravaggio, for comparison. It was painted 20 years later and the resemblance to the Caravaggio is striking (was this already a traditional way to depict this scene?), but the overall effect of the two side by side is to throw into relief the difference between genius and mere competence.

Here is what I see: the apocalyptic invasion of God into the human sphere

We see a plain room with a window. The panes of this window seem to be dulled, admitting no light. On the left of the picture there are five men grouped around a card table, counting money, brilliantly lit by an unseen source of light high on the right, out of the picture plane. This group takes up 2/3 of the space in the frame. The men are dressed in elaborate plumed hats, velvets, and silks, like fashionable dandies of Caravaggio’s own time.

Christ enters from the shadows on the far right of the room, accompanied by Peter, whose face is in shadow and barely visible. They are poorly dressed and barefoot, in period—first-century Palestine. Christ, whose face and arm catch the light, points commandingly toward the men at the table with his right hand, while holding his left hand palm open in a gesture of reception and welcome, perhaps of support and encouragement as well.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough the sense that Caravaggio conveys that this is an interruption, an intrusion from some sphere other than any that the men know.

Much has been written about the “progression of hands” across the picture from right to left. The outstretched arm and hand of Christ is repeated in a much more hesitant, secondary way by the barely extended pointing hand of Peter who seems to be focusing on the man in front (though this is not entirely clear). This is possibly a reference to the well-meaning cluelessness that Peter so often exhibits in the Gospels. The lean, lightly bearded face of Christ is half in shadow. We do not see his eyes clearly; most of the light falls on his jawline. It is an exceptionally beautiful face with chiseled features, arresting in its intensity and purposefulness even though it is only partially visible.

The two men on the far left are so engrossed in their money-counting that they seem unaware of the intruders. A third man, closest to Peter, seated with his back to us and wearing a sword, looks up at Peter and Jesus with a bemused stare. The fourth is one of Caravaggio’s beautiful boys (his face, taken out of context, is one of the images used to sell Caravaggio now, though all the critics seem to agree that Caravaggio’s biblical scenes are his masterpieces). This youth with his bright silken attire is the most well-lit figure, and he looks at the two barefoot, homespun figures with some degree of disdain. He props his right elbow on Matthew’s shoulder and his hand is at rest, showing his lack of engagement; this is part of the “progression of hands.” And finally, in the fifth figure we have Matthew with his stylish velvet cap and powerful legs in white hose, where the progression of hands comes to rest. He, wide-eyed, points to his own breast and we can almost hear him saying, “Who, me?”

I read this unequivocally as a depiction, in the most dramatic and forceful terms possible, of 1) the apocalyptic invasion of God, unbidden, into human affairs and 2) the mystery of the irresistible divine election.

Here we come to a conundrum, leading to a classic theological dispute. The painting is much debated. It must be admitted that whereas the outstretched arm of Christ is forceful and commanding, his pointing hand droops somewhat, suggesting a synthesis of the hands of God and of Adam in Michelangelo’s famous scene (which of course Caravaggio would have seen and admired). Why does his hand not point more directly? Does this suggest something in itself?

Ingrid Rowland, in the May 27 issue of The New York Review of Books, offers an analysis of Caravaggio’s life and work. Unlike some, she takes it for granted that the tormented artist was a Christian believer on some level, and like most, she considers his religious paintings to be his most important. Strikingly, she writes,

“Caravaggio does not upset the Bible; an apostle in his own right, he makes the Bible upset us.”

We can file that permanently in our storehouse of quotations. Her interpretation of The Calling of St. Matthew, however, is another story. She lays out the theological debate that will continue in the Church until the Second Coming. She thinks the painting is about the human decision. She writes:

“Jesus, young and earnest, points his hand in no particular direction, while the apostle [Peter] at his side aims his own pointing finger at one of the dapper youths with a plumed hat who stares without reacting; it is clear to us, at least, that the Lord’s command has been aimed at them all, but only Matthew has had the wit to receive it.”

This is what Pelagius would have said. But it is not what the New Testament says. The calling of Matthew is described tersely in two verses. Immediately preceding is a story emphasizing the powerful authority of Jesus in healing a paralytic; the passage reads as follows (Matthew 9:6-9)

“…But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, take up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.

Were these invitations, or commands? Could the paralytic have said “No” to the command to take up his pallet? Could Lazarus have said “No” to the command “Lazarus, come forth”? Does the passage about the calling of Matthew suggest that Matthew was just one of several who had a choice about rising from their money-counting to follow? Clearly not. The terseness of the storytelling here throws all the emphasis on the choice of Matthew and the irresistibility of the call.

It is true that there were those who refused an invitation (distinguished from command) from Jesus, most notably the rich young man in Mark 19:16-22. That story, however, is framed differently, as a teaching about the perils of riches. The dialogue with the young man concludes with an invitation, which is rejected; but the story is then extended into the very important dialogue which immediately follows:

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

This detour into the often-mentioned story of the rich young man should not deflect us from the fact that the overwhelming witness of the Old and New Testaments testifies both to irresistible grace and to the particularity of the divine election. Obviously there is affront here. Why some and not others? We do not know, but those of us who have experienced the call of God over and against our own deserving will recognize the humbling and transformative power of this specific selection of ourselves.

And in the end, as Karl Barth above all recasts the doctrine of election, we learn that in the story of Jesus Christ, all human beings are destined as the elect. In the self-offering of the Son of God, the “no” of the perverted human will finds its overriding and triumphant “yes.”

And so there is a final touch to be noted about Caravaggio’s painting. Most of the reproductions of The Calling of St. Matthew, on postcards and such, cut off the top fourth of the painting. Many, therefore, do not see that above Christ’s commanding arm, the dulled windowpanes form the unmistakable shape of a Cross.