(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
The Martyrdom of St Matthew1599-1600
Oil on canvas, 323 x 343 cm
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Nothing that Caravaggio had done before was equal in scale, majesty or beauty to the first painting he produced for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, the French Church in Rome. The Martyrdom of St Matthew hangs on the right wall of the Contarelli Chapel and is lit from the left, as if from the window behind the altar.
The location is the steps up to a Christian altar, with a Greek cross marked on its frontage, and a candle burning. In the background on the left, we can just make out the shaft of a column in the almost impenetrable darkness. Steps ascend parallel to the picture towards the altar at the back. They also appear on the left, where churches do not normally have steps. For this reason some experts have claimed to detect a baptismal font in the foreground, especially as men are lying nearby, half-naked. On the left, a man is leaning against a step. He has no more concrete a role than two youths crouching in the foreground on the right, staring at the main action. They form the right-hand border of the composition, like river-gods on classical reliefs.
The picture's main figure is also half-naked. This is not the martyr, but his executioner. In terms of stroboscopic figures, his feet are level with the falling figure to his left. He has emerged from the depth of the picture to stand near the altar. This is hard to understand in a pictorial narrative which ought to be clarifying the passage of time in spatial terms. Insofar as the murderer has associated himself with the half-naked man in the foreground, left, the fall of the latter suggests that his power will also be shortlived.
Yet what Caravaggio is really depicting is the murderer's moment. He has thrown St Matthew, a bearded old man, to the ground. As a priest, he is wearing alb and chasuble. Whilst his victim helplessly props himself up on the ground, the Herculean youth seizes his wrist in his right hand, to hold the victim still for the death-blow. Yet the apostle's attempt to ward off his murderer, with his furious face, turns into a different gesture as an angel extends a martyr's palm-leaf to his open hand.