N° 3 – The Martyrdom of St. Matthew – Rome, October 2004
There is so much going on in this painting that sometimes it's hard to take it all in. According to tradition, in later life, St. Matthew was a priest in Ethiopia. When the king of that land decided to force his own niece to marry him (she was a Christian nun to boot), St. Matthew tried to prevent it. The enraged king sent a soldier to execute Matthew for this offence.
Caravaggio's painting depicts St. Matthew, in the process of giving mass (or perhaps baptising new converts considering the state of their undress?), in the moment that he is cut down by his assassin. As Matthew looks up at his killer, calmly, almost welcoming death, an angel reaches down from a cloud to hand him a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom.
You won't be surprised to learn that this painting sits alongside the other two in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Therefore I saw it for the first time along with the other two, back in early October 2004, when Caravaggio burst into my consciouness so dramatically. It is my least favorite of the three, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. What I love most about it (besided the tortured self-portrait of the artist peeking out from the shadows near the assassin's right shoulder) is the way Caravaggio captured a moment frozen in time. The work is full of action, it's almost chaotic to look at. But, like in The Calling, Caravaggio has captured that fleeting moment just before the climax, a moment full of tension and anticipation, that hangs in the air just like the angel on the cloud.