How can a call be “represented” visually? There is an entire sensory experience in between hearing and seeing, which gives them a considerably different communicative value. One may hear something without necessarily seeing it and, inversely, one may see something without necessarily hearing anything at all. The two, hearing and seeing, can be experienced on opposite ends even when it comes to their duration – to their permanence, or lack of. The two words uttered by Christ: “Follow me!” are authoritatively abrupt. In their biblical context, no other words preceded or succeeded them – the two words seemingly came out of nowhere. Yet, having these two words immortalised in Scripture caused them to lose their brevity so that they may be handed down over the ages as text, as words with universal implications which we, as serious readers, all too often place ourselves on the receiving end of these two abruptly spoken and inexplicably challenging words.
Caravaggio, the mastermind behind the painting entitled ‘The Calling of St Matthew’ which is tucked away in the Contarelli Chapel within the French church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, was well aware of the conflicting nature of the commission of this painting. He had to represent a “call” – a vocal enticement, as well as the reception of this call by Levi (as referred to prior to his name-change). Certainly, Levi’s reaction could not have been as abrupt as described, or rather, as not described in Mark’s Gospel. Yet, we do know the outcome. Levi eventually got up from the tax-collectors’ table. What we do not know, however, is what happened in between.
As an echo fills the space where the voice could not have been, so does Caravaggio’s painting. It departs from a source (and the “call” of his patrons, so to speak), and he proceeds to fill the dark, unknown gaps in between. And in the dark, he places a window; a table with five people around it, all clothed in contemporary dress; and another figure in Biblical clothing, leaning on a walking stick and pointing in imitation of Christ.
But this painting is not meant to be read like a book, from left to right, and where both setting and characters can be clearly identified. Rather, it is a reflection of what might have happened, where the only stable anchor of the entire painting is, in fact, Christ himself – the most certain and resolute protagonist of both text and painting. However, this impossibly beautiful Christ is, for the most part, concealed by the inadequate figure of St Peter – the symbolic representation of the Church – who tries desperately to be more like Christ. But here, the weakened call has already become an echo of its source. Here, on the right section of the painting, closest to the physical altar in the chapel where the painting hangs, the inaudible call has already occurred. Christ’s feet are already pointing the other way, as if he were about to leave the scene. Here, Caravaggio shows us, is the brevity of the “call”. It comes and goes, and in its silence, as witnesses, we could only but hope to see it coming.