The Calling





"The Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio, painted in 1600 AD for an Italian church named for the Saint is one of my favorite paintings. It is currently my computer desktop background. The painting is approximately 10ft by 10ft and is based on the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9): "Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, "Follow me", and Matthew rose and followed Him."

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

This is no Renaissance depiction of the Christian Gospel. The compositional order reflecting a divine ideal is replaced by a scene of naturalism. The crystal clear gems of Raphael's color have given way to a drab realism of earthly streets. Where the artists of the Renaissance celebrated the glory of the revelation, Caravaggio delves into the experience of faith itself. The Art of the Baroque retains the exquisite technical achievements made by Renaissance artists while revisiting the drama of its Medieval predecessor.

“When you were called, did you answer or did you not? Perhaps softly and in a whisper?” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

In this painting, Matthew exists in the illuminated world enveloped by sensory details. Surrounded by youth, counting coins, armed and dressed exquisitely, he is beckoned to the threshold. Christ comes not from this world, but rather intangibly out of the darkness. The spiritual language of solidity, order and idealized beauty from the prior age gives way to a sensuous and slightly threatening faith emanating from the darkness. Satisfaction with the illuminated world cannot awaken Matthew to the calling. The opening to another world has presented itself.

"It is different in the world of the spirit. Here an external divine order prevails. Here it does not rain on both the just and the unjust; here the sun does not shine of both good and evil. Here it holds true that only the one who works gets bread, that only the one who was in anxiety finds rest, the only the one who descends into the lower world rescues the beloved, that only the one who draws the knife gets Isaac" - Soren Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling

He must leave the comfort of his home, his friends and his money to follow the call of a figure who barely exists as a physical entity in the scene at all. Where is the source of the light that bathe Peter and Christ within the shadow. It is a sensory contradiction. It is the darkness, not the light that appears supernatural. This is not the faith of the revelation. This is not the gilded illumination of the message of Christ. Rather, we are presented with a subversive kind of faith. The faith of the mystic or the shaman. This is not a faith that descends from the mouth of the Lord to the ears of man but stirs in the depths of the subconscious. It is a faith that is compulsive, that moves men without the implication of resolution. Among the figures in the painting, who is Matthew to impress if he were to get up and leave?

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Caravaggio's painting depicts an archetypal aspect of the Hero's Journey. The call to adventure is a universally recurring aspect in the monomyth. The hero is beckoned away from the known world. The safety of the village cannot satisfy the needs of the individual and the mystery and whispers of the unknown world, the the unexplored depths drives him out. Whether it is the macro chasm a world hero or the micro chasm of a specific individual, the painting describes a universal psychological reality. Growth of the soul does not come from the illuminated world. The hand of God reaches out from the shadows and compels the hero. Sacrifices must be made and any resolution is shrouded in darkness. It is the beginning of the archetypal journey.

Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest (whether religious, political, or personal), the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens in the interval of the hero's nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power, mankind is also unanimous in declaring. We shall have only to follow, therefore, a multitude of heroic figures through the classic stages of the universal adventure in order to see again what has always been revealed. ...the singleness of the human spirit in its aspirations, powers, vicissitudes, and wisdom. -Joseph Campbell "Hero with a Thousand Faces"

In the wake of the Protestant reformation, it is no surprise that Caravaggio had many detractors among the Church and the Arts. This painting is an insight into the nature of faith without referencing the glory of the Church. A precarious statement to make in Rome at the time. Critics decried the vulgarity of its naturalness and derided it as unfit for religious story telling. Caravaggio himself lived a short, miserable life. He died a murder on the run from the law, sick and drunk and was largely forgotten in Italy for centuries. His legacy only maintained by the magnificent Spanish painters whose peasant sensibilities and spirituality appreciated the blending of natural beauty with the twinges of fear in the darkness.

"The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice and sanctified misunderstanding. "live," Nietzsche says, "as though the day were here." It is not society that is to guide the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal, carries the cross of the redeemer, not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair." -Joseph Campbell

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