By Father Thom Hennen
This month we will unveil a new seminarian poster for the Davenport Diocese. Along with the pictures of our 12 seminarians, the poster will feature Caravaggio’s famous painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (c. 1600).
I chose this painting because it is the kind of image that draws you in and stays with you. Also, it portrays the dynamics of vocation. In showing the initial poster designs to others for their feedback, however, I discovered that it needed some explanation. Until you really look at it, it is hard to see what’s going on here. Knowing the title of the piece helps, but art of this kind is not always immediately accessible to us. Once I started to explain to others all that was packed into this painting, they were fascinated and thought such an explanation might also be helpful to the “viewing public” when the poster arrives.
On the right side of the painting we see the figure of Christ, and standing next to him is a figure of one of the apostles. As we pan to the left we see a group of men, young and old, seated around a table at the tax collector’s office. What strikes you first in looking at the painting is the stark contrast between light and dark. Caravaggio is considered an innovator and master of this technique. What is most fascinating, though, is the source of light in this scene. In the middle of the room you see a window, but the light is not coming from the window. The light is coming from the direction of Christ. It is as if Jesus has stepped out of the light and into the darkness in order to call Matthew forth into the light. It calls to mind the first preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time in the Mass: “Everywhere we proclaim your mighty works for you have called us out of darkness into your own wonderful light.”
Christ stands at the door in shadow, except for his face, his outstretched hand, and the slightest glimmer of a halo. The fact that so little of his body is actually seen almost suggests that he is not bodily present. This lends a sense of timelessness to the painting. While Christ is still very much present to us today, he is not present in exactly the same way he was 2,000 years ago. But this does not impede his calling. Christ still calls, though he no longer walks among us in a physical body. As we read in the first letter of St. Peter: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him” (1 Pet 1:8).
Then we have the figure of the apostle standing next to Christ. Perhaps it is St. Peter. Whoever it is intended to be, his presence is significant. As the apostle points with Jesus, it demonstrates that the call of Christ is carried out through the agency of the Church. A vocation to the priesthood, diaconate or consecrated life is never based purely on the feeling of the individual. The Church must also discern along with the person. Christ calls with and through his Church.
So, what about the people around the table? To me, this is the most fascinating aspect of the painting. Each of the figures at the table reacts differently to Christ. Starting at the top right, we have the figure of a boy, who seems at once intensely curious and yet very confused about what is taking place. Then, moving clockwise, there is a young man with his back to us. He seems to be in motion, as though getting up to intercept Christ and the apostle. He has a sword at the ready on his left hip, which suggests almost a violent reaction to Christ. Continuing to the left, we see another young man with his head down counting money. The look on his face suggests that he knows Jesus is there, but he is pretending not to notice. Standing above him is an older man who seems more genuinely engrossed in his work, such that he pays no attention to what is going on. Finally, in the middle, there is Matthew. He has a look of wide-eyed bewilderment. He points to himself, as if to say, “Who? Me?”
What is so wonderful about this painting is that we see in it the whole range of reactions to the summons of Christ. Each person responds differently to the invitation of the Master and anyone who experiences this calling is likely to go through all of these phases at one time or another.
A word about their dress — it occurred to me that maybe a picture of a bunch of men in billowy shirts and tights was not the best way to promote vocations to the priesthood. What we have to remember is that as antiquated and ridiculous as their dress may seem to us, for the people of Caravaggio’s time this would have been shockingly modern. This was the dress of Caravaggio’s day. It adds another layer of timelessness to the piece, reminding us once more that Christ calls in every age. Also, in comparing the garish dress of the men at the table to the much simpler dress of Christ and the apostle, we are reminded that the person considering a life of dedicated service to the Church must abandon the superficiality of materialism and embrace a simpler way of life.
I recognize that posters don’t by themselves foster vocations, but I do hope that people will look at this and think about God’s call and their own response. May we respond with the fidelity and zeal of St. Matthew to the invitation of Christ who calls us out of the darkness of our worldliness and egoism into the light of joyful discipleship.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)