ROME, Italy — Going to Rome means going to Caravaggio’s St. Matthew cycle in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, near the Piazza Navona. And going to the St. Matthew cycle means being captivated by “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew” (1599–1600), one of the most enthralling works of Western art.
The scene — a grotesque pas de deux between the prostrate saint and his merciless, nearly naked assassin — is unparalleled in its depiction of chaos, panic and savagery. The figures, squeezed up against the picture plane, create a fierce tension between the illusion of depth and the shallow Cubist space, the patches of light burning like sulfur in pitch.
But this time I took a longer look at “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” (1602), the hinge panel of the three-part cycle, with the “Martyrdom” on the left and the classically rendered (for Caravaggio) “Calling of St. Matthew” (1599-1600) on the right.
Compared with the number of dramatis personae in its companion pieces, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” is simplicity itself. It has only two elements, an angel and the saint. The angel swoops down from the top edge as billowing swaths of fabric spiral around its body, while Matthew’s orange and scarlet robes trail to the floor: the earthbound mortal, hostage to the distractions of daily existence, visited by fleeting gusts of inspiration.
The nearly symmetrical arrangement suggests order and stability, but in fact there is none. The painting’s main axis, running from the red robe draped over the stool on which Matthew is kneeling, through his left arm, and terminating at the dividing line between the angel’s hair and shoulder, is an off-center diagonal. The closer you look, the more you realize that there are no verticals in the picture at all; even the stool is slightly tipped. And, for that matter, there are no horizontals either; everything is off-kilter in one way or another.
Moreover, the geometry of the major shapes, two unconnected ovals, is interrupted or fragmentary. The angel’s cloud-like robes are a broken eggshell, and the curve starting at Matthew’s right shoulder and ending at his left knee is cut off by the dark thrust of his writing desk before it can complete its circuit.
The saint’s body pivots off the aforementioned trailing red robe, which offers no support and is further unbalanced by the saint’s cantilevering shin, ankle and downward-pointing foot. This section of the painting is intersected by an opposing diagonal, which starts at the vector of the orange robe covering Matthew’s right shoulder and continues down to his lower right leg. That leg, which is barely visible in the shadows, seems to propel him forward as his arms press down, as if clinging for salvation to his writing.
If you’ve been to San Luigi dei Francesi, you know that the only way to see the paintings is to drop coins into a box that trips on the lights. Otherwise, they’re engulfed in the darkness of the chapel, which presumably would have been no brighter in Caravaggio’s time than it is now. Unless there was a source of natural light that has since been covered up, the only way to have seen the Matthew cycle back then would have been with banks and banks of candles.
We can only imagine how hallucinatory those images would have looked in that flickering, smoky light — or how vulnerable, extinguished in a breath.