The Calling of Saint Matthew is a masterpiece by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, depicting the moment at which Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him. It was completed in 1599-1600 for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of the French congregation, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, where it remains today. It hangs alongside two other paintings of Matthew by Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (painted around the same time as the Calling) and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602).
The painting depicts 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.” Caravaggio depicts Matthew the tax collector sitting at a table with four other men. Jesus Christ and Saint Peter have entered the room, and Jesus is pointing at Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table who are looking at Christ.
There is some debate over which man in the picture is Saint Matthew, as the surprised gesture of the bearded man at the table can be read in two ways.
Most writers on the Calling assume Saint Matthew to be the bearded man, and see him to be pointing at himself, as if to ask “Me?” in response to Christ’s summons. This theory is strengthened when one takes into consideration the other two works in this series, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The bearded man who models as Saint Matthew appears in all three works, with him unequivocally playing the role of Saint Matthew in both the Inspiration and the Martyrdom. It is also possible that the bearded Saint Matthew is pointing to the younger man whose head is slumped, unsure if Christ is summoning him or the younger man, the latter of which is not looking in the direction of Christ.
A more recent interpretation proposes that the bearded man is in fact pointing at the young man at the end of the table, whose head is slumped. In this reading, the bearded man is asking “Him?” in response to Christ’s summons, and the painting is depicting the moment immediately before a young Matthew raises his head to see Christ. Other writers describe the painting as deliberately ambiguous.
Pope Francis has said that he often went to San Luigi as a young man to contemplate the painting. Referring both to Christ’s outstretched arm and Matthew’s response, Francis said, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”