N° 1 - The Calling of St. Matthew – Rome, October 2004
This is the very first painting by Caravaggio that I can ever remember seeing. And it is still one of my very favorites to this day. Every time I see it (especially in person, but even a reproduction), it always makes me catch my breath.
I "discovered" this painting after less than a month in Rome. I was living (for a very brief three-week stint) in an apartment literally around the corner from the Pantheon–-and about a minute's walk from San Luigi de' Francesi church. I had befriended an architecture master's student studying abroad in Rome, and he took me to the church to see the three Caravaggio masterpieces that are housed there, in the Contarelli Chapel to be precise. Since that day, I have come back to that church again and again. It's the kind of place that, if I'm passing by it and have a few minutes to spare, I always stop in to ogle these three paintings.
Without going into too much detail (I'll leave that to the experts, such as Peter Robb in his excellent book, M: The Caravaggio Enigma), the scene depicts the moment in which Christ, accompanied by St. Peter, calls St. Matthew to be his disciple. Matthew (called Levi at the time) was a tax collector, considered a particularly undesirable and sordid profession, is in what looks like a tavern, counting money with his cohorts. Suddenly a ray of light pierces the space and Christ appears, pointing to St. Matthew, who stares back in disblief, pointing to his own chest as if to say, "Who me?" One of Caravaggio's greatest gifts (of which he had many) was his ability to capture a moment of stopped time. A moment full of dramatic tension yet somehow strangely static. A moment in which everything is about to change.
My favorite detail: the hand of Christ, as he indicateds Peter as his chosen disciple, is inspired by the hand of Adam as he reaches out to God in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.