In honor of the Berkley Center’s “Courtyard of the Gentiles” events this week, we invited scholars to reflect on the relationship between religious freedom and the arts. We asked scholars how robust religious freedom may promote culture and the arts or how a lack of such freedom can find an outlet in artistic expression.
By: Paul Elie
The run of readings from Matthew’s Gospel—and an English-language rendition of the “St. Matthew Passion” on the stereo—put Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew in mind; and an invitation to write this post for the Cornerstone blog led me to think about Caravaggio, and religious freedom, and the Passion narrative, in ways that seem to me to suit the day and the hour.
In an essay about Caravaggio published a year ago I focused on the stress he gave to the antipodes of love and violence rather than orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It is this emphasis that makes Caravaggio an anti-iconographic painter, one who paints scenes that are happening once and for all, as if for the first time.
For his use of living models, his attention to light and its effects, his scrutiny of the body, he is called a naturalist. For his attention to ordinary people—poor, humble, everyday people—he is called a “pauveriste,” an artist working in a tradition that developed in the spirit of St. Philip Neri. But his approach is more complicated than those terms suggest. His subjects are crucial episodes in the Christian adventure. He paints them in a way faithful to scripture, to human action, to the claims and burdens of the flesh. His attention to biblical scenes and episodes from the early church makes them feel early, as if they precede the tradition of Christian iconography that developed in the Middle Ages. Somehow he got back behind the long, grand tradition of Christian art and made it new.
That is what you feel when you look at the paintings. Never before have you seen a biblical scene shown this way. No one before Caravaggio saw it this way. The paintings, breakthroughs four hundred years ago, look like breakthroughs today. The ancient faith is made new and arresting again; the whole epistemologically strained religion is grasped as if for the first time.
At the same time, the paintings exhaust the incidents they depict. His biblical scenes are all but over as he paints them. Lazarus is being raised. Christ is being taken. Catherine sits calm and sexy before the wheel of her impaling. Matthew, Peter, and Paul are being killed in action. Lucy, dead already, is being laid in earth. An epochal action is ending. The hour is getting late.
The Calling of St. Matthew at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome is a work of love. Strictly speaking, it is about obedience: the teacher points a finger in the darkness and we are to understand that the tax collector will obey. But what passes between Jesus and Matthew is love. Jesus makes his appeal from the shadows—the margins—rather than from the center of the painting. His hand is extended but relaxed, not in anger or accusation. The clear-eyed regard shown to Jesus by the boy to Matthew’s left—who is so handsome, so stylishly dressed and plumed, and so brilliantly lit as to be the center of the painting—shows that there is nothing to fear here. The light of the whole, the diagonal sweep from the right-hand corner across the window in the center, suggests the steadiness of the love in Jesus’s request and command. The accepting gaze of the eventual evangelist, the eternal “Who, me?”—eyebrows raised, eyes soft and wet as if tears are forming—makes clear that he knows his life is changing. So do we: but we feel his old life ending more than his new life beginning.
The painting is as sufficient unto itself as any painting ever was. But in Caravaggio’s body of work it is completed by the painting hung opposite: the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, a painting of violence.
Love and violence: these antipodes of Caravaggio’s work are those of the Passion narratives, too. Christ’s love is met with violence; the violence of his captors and tormenters is met with love. But let’s not forget: it didn’t have to go that way. The love that runs through the story—from the calling of St. Matthew to the crucifixion of the figure who called him—was freely given and freely accepted in response. It happened once and for all, and it keeps happening that way. There is nothing guaranteed or inevitable about it.
This freedom Caravaggio understood as well as any artist ever has, and it is the root of the extraordinary freedom of his paintings.
Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, a university partnership with StoryCorps based in the Berkley Center.
This piece was originally authored on April 7, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.