We can speak of, at least, four distinct Caravaggio portrayals of Saint Matthew, tax collector, apostle, evangelist, and martyr. Why was Caravaggio so willing to paint Matty? Perhaps, the most compelling is, The Calling of Saint Matthew, where Jesus comes to the custom house. Jesus wants Matthew, he points to him, and our boy, Matthew, points to himself, as if asking, “Me?”. (see:Sister Simone Campbell ) And, of course, the answer was, “Yes, You!” The light appears from the right, where it appears to come from a window in situ. Peter and Jesus are wearing classical robes, Matthew and his cronies, costume of the times. Clearly, Jesus is calling all of us, NOW. Another was the martyrdom, but two were as the Gospel writer, practically, taking dictation from an angel. In one, the angel is counting a point from his finger, while Matthew has one foot on the ground, and a knee on a bench, while he pens a book. These were all commissioned for the same church in Rome, Saint Louis the French.
This was to replace an earlier version, that was rejected. That version was destroyed during the unpleasantries in Berlin, in 1945. Black and white photographs show a grounded angel, guiding the hand of a sturdy laboring man seated. Matthew’s legs look clumsy and awkward.
José de Ribera, Lo Spagnoletto, has a handsome, older Matthew holding a book. As young man, de Ribera, met Caravaggio and became a tenebrosi. He painted the saint as a distinguished doctor and professor.The coloring and the chiaroscuro are like Caravaggio, but without tension. The sweetest and most heart warming portrait, is by the Bolognese, Guido Reni. Reni, too learned from Caravaggio, but also from many others, and enjoyed a lighter palette. A beautiful, childlike angel, counts a point off to an attentive, elderly, handsome Matthew. The gaze of the saint is that of a grandfather at a grandchild. Such warmth and tenderness, in a baroque painting, is seldom found. The drawing and the color are wonderful. Copies of this should grace classrooms the world over.
Guido Reni. L'Evangelista Matteo e l'Angelo. 1630s-1640. Vatican.
We have four genuine Gospels. Matthew being the earliest and oldest, and originally in Aramaic (sometimes called Hebrew).* This has been the catholic orthodox view, while heterodox views deny both those attributes, and more. Matthew is the longest of the four, and the most troublesome to heretics, in that it bolsters the one, holy, catholic church, and refutes many private teachings, that want precedence over authority and orthodoxy. He is the son of Alpheus/Cleopas (hellenisations of a Hebrew name Chalphi) brother to the apostle, Saint James the Less, and to Simeon and Joses. His mother is Mary, one of the women at the cross. Alpheus being a brother to Joseph. Matthew (Mattija) is also called Levi.
Each of the four evangelists have a corresponding iconic figure: Mathew : man, Mark : lion, Luke : ox, John : eagle. This comes from remarks in Ezekiel and the Apocalypse.
*Certainly before the Roman sack of Jerusalem in a.D. 70, perhaps around the time of the Herodian persecution, a.D. 42.