“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Jesus answered: I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-35.
On Thursday of this week, we celebrate the feast day of Matthew, who was among the least likely of Apostles.
He was a tax collector and a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, and so despised by his fellow Jews.
The most famous 16th Century baroque paintings of Matthew are located in the Church of Saint Louis, nearby the Piazza Navona in Rome.
These masterworks by Caravaggio are in the Contarelli chapel and are composed of three artworks on Matthew’s life, his calling, his martyrdom and his inspiration as a witness to Christ.
Next door to this church is the Casa del Clero, a residence for priests, where Pope Francis stayed over the years when he was a priest, and later as a visiting Cardinal.
From time to time, Francis went to the church to pray before these very paintings.
In Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew, you see the Lord’s outstretched hands and Matthew’s quizzed response to this invitation.
Of this painting, Pope Francis said: “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
In this and many of his religious paintings, Caravaggio employed the technique of “tenebrism.” His works appear to bring light out of the darkness and use shadows to emphasize light.
To my mind, Caravaggio may be referencing his own life, like Saint Matthew, Caravaggio was the least likely follower of Christ, and perhaps the least to be forgiven.
Michaelangelo Merici, Caravaggio’s given name, was born in Milan in 1571. He was an orphan at a young age and moved to Rome, where he studied under artists of his day. Later he moved to Naples, where he received important commissions. He was a talented man on the move.
He was also a very conflicted, violent, and possibly bi-polar. In the act of revenge, he had killed a man. Caravaggio was a troubled spirit in need of forgiveness.
So he fled to Malta and later to Sicily, where he lived on his commissions from wealthy patrons who also provided him protection from his enemies.
He died nearby Rome in 1610 and possibly from lead poisoning as the result of exposure to the lead from his vibrant paints. As contemporary authors have speculated, Caravaggio may have died in yet another act of violence.
His works draw on Matthew’s gospel and prod the sinner to do the real work of Christ, namely to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and the imprisoned, bury the dead.
Why was Caravaggio so taken with Christ and his invitation to acts of great mercy and forgiveness?
Here the Lord reminds us: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Is there darkness in our own lives that we need to confess before the God of great mercy and forgiveness?
Presidio Chapel, Defense Langage Institute, Monterey, CA.