Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ambiguity, or, Why We Love Caravaggio

I revisited the Chiesa San Luigi dei Francesi today and again found myself contemplating the The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio, one of three painting by the artist in the Contarelli Chapel.

For me the power of the image lies, first, in the figure of Christ -- hardly visible, off to the right side of the painting, disembodied, with his arm pointing toward Matthew, and below, his naked feet in the shadows.  But the eye is most powerfully drawn to Matthew, and the ambiguity of every part of his portrayal.  His right hand still grasps the money he must abandon to follow Christ.  His legs seem to be moving, but toward or away his destiny?  His eyes look both surprised and fearful.  And, finally, his finger seems to point toward his neighbor, but his curling toward himself, as if in recognition that it is he who is being called.  Or was he pointing toward himself and his finger is now unfurling toward his neighbor, as if to see, "You couldn't mean me; you must want him." The appeal of this painting, and perhaps all of Caravaggio, is the ambiguity of emotion and action, amidst all the drama of light.  We are called into the picture, and asked to consider how we would respond.

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