Feast of St. Matthew

Happy name day to all Matthews who might be reading.

In his recent major interview, the Holy Father spoke about a very special painting of St. Matthew that is located here in Rome:

“…I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”

Here is the famous painting by the great painter Caravaggio:

It’s clear who Christ is, but which one is St. Matthew?

Up until recently I always just enjoyed this painting and sort of took it for granted that the figure of St. Matthew is the one closer to the center, with the beard and pointing his finger (seemingly back at himself as if to say, “Me?”). But then I learned that there is actually a fairly lively debate here in Italy about this detail. Not everyone identifies the figure of Matthew with the figure near the center.

Including now the Pope!

If you re-read the Holy Father’s statement above, you’ll see that he identifies the figure at the end of the table – the man hunched over his money with his head down – as that of St. Matthew. This interpretation was also recently advanced by the vaticanist Sandro Magister.

Here is a photo I took a few years back of the real painting, which is awkwardly situated on the side wall of a relatively small side chapel in the church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi) here in Rome. Given its location it’s almost as if Caravaggio didn’t think the painting that good or interesting.

It’s hard even to get a decent picture of it, given where it is located.

And here is some “street art” featuring another figure from that famous painting, painted onto an Italian Postal Service mailbox:

Finally, it is worth noting today the reason for the Holy Father’s particular devotion to St. Matthew, particularly in that painting that is located in a church near where he used to stay when he came to Rome as a bishop and cardinal.

His episcopal motto (see his coat-of-arms in the bottom-right of the page sidebar) is “Miserando atque Eligendo”, words from a homily by St. Bede on the Calling of St. Matthew. The words in Latin, which are difficult to translate, recall how Christ looked at Matthew with mercy and chose him.

In fact, it was on the feast of St. Matthew 60 years ago today – September 21, 1953 – that a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio (today Pope Francis) experienced Christ’s mercy and call, and received his vocation to be a priest. So the Holy Father identifies with St. Matthew; he identifies with what is portrayed in that painting.

St. Matthew, pray for Pope Francis, and pray for us.

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