Following Our Heart: ‘The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
December 6, 2020 Updated: December 6, 2020

I believe we all, at one point or another, struggle with authenticity in our lives. Some of us follow our hearts and hope for the best.

But what might it mean to follow one’s heart? Is it merely to follow the ephemerality of our desires and to be compelled by the intensity of our emotions? Or is it to connect with something deeper, something spiritual, something eternal?

Considering this question makes me think of one of Caravaggio’s paintings of St. Matthew.

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“The Inspiration of Saint Matthew,” 1602, by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas; 9 feet 8.5 inches by 6 feet 2.5 inches. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. (Public Domain)

Caravaggio’s Inspired St. Matthew

In 1602, Caravaggio painted a second version of “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew” after his first version was rejected by the patron for these specific paintings, Cardinal Contarelli.

St. Matthew is one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, an author of one of the four gospels, and one of the four evangelists mentioned in “Revelations.” In that final book of the New Testament, the four evangelists are accompanied by four living creatures, with St. Matthew’s being a winged man, an angel.

In “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew,” Caravaggio depicted St. Matthew being inspired by an angel. The angel descends from above and communicates with Matthew amid a background of darkness. The angel, as he counts off directives on the fingers of his left hand, seems to give specific instructions to the saint. 

St. Matthew turns from his table and book and looks up humbly at the angel to receive the instructions. There appears to be a sense of urgency in the saint’s demeanor as he simultaneously twists his body to accept the angel’s instructions and readies his pen to touch the page.

Caravaggio depicted Matthew with one knee perched on a stool, a stool that appears to be wobbling under the weight of the saint because one of the stool’s legs hangs over the ledge or platform that holds the saint, the stool, and the table.

Caravaggio used a technique often referred to as “trompe l’oeil” (French for “deceive the eye”) to make the leg of the bench appear as if it is not a mere painting but part of our world. Trompe l’oeil was also used for the bottom of Saint Matthew’s robe and the corner of the book that is foreshortened toward us.

All of these areas are made to seem as if they are real, as if we could reach out and help steady the bench, touch the saint’s robe, or with one finger push the corner of the book back onto the table.

Restoring Faith Through Art

Caravaggio was painting for the Roman Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation (16th and early 17th centuries). The Protestant Reformation rejected Catholic art as idolatrous, and the Catholic Church’s response to this accusation was to claim that art could help spread the Word of God and encourage faith.

Cardinal Contarelli commissioned Caravaggio to make three paintings of St. Matthew, Contarelli’s patron saint, for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi. These types of paintings were typically commissioned by the Catholic Church, which believed in the importance of saints whereas Protestants did not. 

Painting images that illustrated stories from the Bible alongside the lives of the saints reinforced the Catholic Church’s stance on the importance of art.

Communicating the Pure, Innocent, and Heavenly

But what message might we gather from Caravaggio’s painting for today? What might this painting offer our hearts and minds? 

First, the angel is depicted as being very young. He descends from above and is dressed in a white robe. The angel’s white robe and young age are symbolic of his purity and innocence; his descension is symbolic of the fact that he is not from this world but from heaven. 

The angel descends to communicate a specific message, which is suggested by his hand gestures. The specific message of an angel whose nature is pure, innocent, and heavenly can only be a pure, innocent, and heavenly message.

St. Matthew has a halo around his head, representing his dedication to a holy life. He dons a red robe, a color that often represents the sacrifice, that is, the selflessness of Jesus’s sacrifice. Matthew’s body is turned toward the table and book on which he writes, but his head is turned toward the angel.

To me, the twisting of St. Matthew’s body represents several things. It represents that the mind must turn away from worldly things and turn toward the pure, innocent, and heavenly if one is to lead a holy life; that is, the mind must turn within. 

I find it interesting that the background is dark but that the angel and the angel’s robe are painted in a somewhat semicircular shape to suggest a profile view of the human brain. Not only that, but the head of the angel is placed where the pineal gland would be located.  

At this time in Western philosophy, the pineal gland was and had long been thought to regulate the flow of spirits or house the soul. Descartes, a contemporary of Caravaggio’s (though writing after this painting was completed), would develop this idea further, suggesting that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul and the place where thoughts form.

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The robe of the angel mimics the shape of a cross-section of the human brain. (Public Domain)

Keeping this in mind, I think the contortion of St. Matthew’s body also suggests the struggle between the holy aspirations of the mind and the temptations of the earthly body. Is this why St. Matthew seems to struggle in balancing himself on his stool, a stool that seems to fall into our world, a world full of temptation?

But what else in the painting appears to come into our world? The book does; it represents the message communicated by the angel—a message of all that is pure, innocent, and heavenly. Part of the red robe does as well, the part that drapes over the bench, a representation of selfless sacrifice.

Is it, then, that Caravaggio is suggesting to us that if we balance ourselves so as to turn away from temptation and sacrifice our worldly desires, we can access that part of our inner selves that houses the pure, innocent, and heavenly aspects of our souls? And wouldn’t that help make us holier?

And if this is so, then wouldn’t it be the case that this inner holiness—if we keep our minds focused on the pure, innocent, and heavenly aspects of our souls—can carry over into our careers, our hobbies, and our relationships so that we have a divinely inspired, trompe l’oeil effect on the world around us? 

I’ve talked a lot about the mind instead of the heart, but I think it’s undeniable that the two affect one another. Attributes such as selflessness, purity, innocence, and the heavenly can be applied to both the mind and heart. Resisting temptation can apply to matters of both the mind and heart.

Is this, at least to some degree, a starting point for embodying what it means to authentically follow our hearts?

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).