The Christian Tetramorph is derived from the four living creatures in the vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5-14) and the Revelation to St John (Revelation 4:6-8) wherein were seen a man, a bull, a lion and an eagle surrounding the throne of God. While these four symbolic figures can be interpreted in many ways – St Jerome, one of the Four Latin Doctors, saw the man as representing the Incarnation, the bull as the Passion, the lion as the Resurrection and the eagle as the Ascension - in most Christian iconographic schemes they stand for the four Evangelists. So a ready way to identify the images of the gospel writers, who might very well look much like each other, is to look for the living creature lurking at their feet or hanging around with them. St Luke has the bull, St Mark has the lion, St John has an eagle and St Matthew, our subject this month, has that with “the face as a man”.
Artists from the early Middle Ages right up to the present day have interpreted these symbolic creatures or “attributes” in a legion of different ways. Our picture was painted by one of the most revolutionary and turbulent artists of the Italian Baroque, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio and, true to his reputation, the image is radically different from those which had gone before. What in the work of other painters would usually have appeared as a passive figure from the tetramorph, included only for identification purposes, has been transformed into a dynamic, angelic, figure of inspiration who reveals to a surprised Matthew all that should be written down in his gospel.
The picture was commissioned by the executors of Cardinal Matteo (Matthew) Contarelli for his family chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome where it still hangs along with two other great canvasses by Caravaggio – the Calling of St Matthew and his Martyrdom. The patrons were very demanding and difficult to please and the canvas now in the chapel was the second version of the subject painted by the artist in 1602 after the first was rejected as too radical and provocative. Caravaggio always used real models, recruited from the streets where he lived and moved, carefully posed for his compositions. The first version – alas destroyed in the Second World War and known today only from reproductions – was a masterpiece and its loss is a tragedy. It showed a common old man with dirty feet, entwined provocatively with a street urchin who whispers the sacred words into the Evangelist’s ear and guides his hand across the page of his open book. Of the three paintings, this one was intended to hang above the altar of the chapel and in the mind of those who were supervising the project, it lacked the necessary decorum for this position. Caravaggio had to start again.
The second version is also an amazing exercise in artistic imagination but less controversial than the first. It places the figure of the saint well above eye level with the bench on which he balances so precariously teetering into our space. All is darkness above the stone slab on which the composition is perched. The Evangelist glows in his robes of yellow and orange and is dynamically posed as if he has just rushed to his desk. His feet are still dirty from the street but his bearing is far more patrician than the earlier model. Hovering above, amidst a whirlwind of white linen, the angel is firmly guiding the saint’s memory, counting off on his fingers the ancestors of Christ listed in Matthew’s first chapter. The angel, albeit hovering in a flurry of fluttering linen, seems very substantial and it is not difficult to see Caravaggio’s young boy model somehow suspended uncomfortably from a system of ropes hanging from the roof of the studio.
St Matthew’s was long thought to be the first of the four canonical Gospels. This painting, a moment seemingly frozen in time, reminds us to revere the saint’s respect for the writings and traditions of the Old Covenant as he reveals to us the fulfilment of all that has gone before.