(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

St Matthew and the Angel

Oil on canvas, 232 x 183 cm
Formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin

The picture shows the first version of the St Matthew and the Angel, executed for the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. This painting was rejected, and the artist made another one which still stands over the altar today. The first version of the St Matthew and the Angel was purchased by Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and then ended up in Berlin, where it was destroyed in the Second World War; no color reproduction exists.

The slow-witted figure of St Matthew, who is naked below below his knees and elbows, and dressed in an ordinary cowl, acquires no real dignity even though the mantle laid over his folding-chair. With his eyes wide open, and with heavy hands, he peers into the thick volumes on his knee. It is not easy to believe he can write. His angel has the greatest difficulty in leading his untrained hand to put the word of God into letters, which are far too big. In doing so, the angel inclines his charming figure, whose shape can clearly be seen beneath his light garment. And so can his androgynous face and long locks of hair, in contrast to the rough bald skull of St Matthew. Against the almost black background, which has been trimmed on the left and at the top, we see the exquisite white of his enormous wings.