In today’s museums, we see art — paintings, in particular — in a sterile environment. We look at the art straight on, where it hangs on a white wall, with plenty of blank space around it, and well lit. But that’s not necessarily the way the art was meant to be seen — because it is not where the art was meant to be seen.
A prime example of the difference in viewing art in a museum versus in situ lies within the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where three Caravaggios still hang in the small Contarelli Chapel. These three paintings constitute Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
Caravaggio knew which chapel he was to decorate, and he studied the chapel before creating the three paintings. Caravaggio specifically considered the lighting in the chapel, and his paintings on the two sides of the chapel are painted as if the scene in the painting had the same natural light that the chapel has.
Caravaggio is widely recognized for his striking use of chiaroscuro, light contrasted by vast areas of darkness. His three paintings here go even further, using the natural light and darkness of the chapel to create an emotional, somehow intimate glimpse into three split second, critical events in the saint’s life.
On the left side of the chapel is The Calling of Saint Matthew. One only sees this painting when standing directly in front of the chapel. Since you cannot enter the chapel, your vision of the painting is at a slight angle, looking up. You see a group of men sitting at a table, their faces turned to the right, to where light streams in. The men are tax collectors, counting their coins, who are suddenly visited by two figures to the right. The surprise is that the two figures are standing in the darkness just under the stream of light. Those two men are Saint Peter and Jesus (his halo faintly visible in the gloom), who raises his arm, pointing to Matthew. It is not clear whether Saint Matthew is the bearded man pointing to himself as if to say, “do you mean me?” or whether he the man slumped over the end of the table. Either way, whichever man is the saint, this moment has now changed his life forever.
On the right side of the chapel is another enormous panel, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Amazingly, the focus is on the sun-lit muscular body of the executioner in the center of the scene; the saint, instead lies prostrate on the bottom right of the panel, close to the viewer. The light streams from a window above, lighting the executioner and then falling on the saint lying below. Like The Calling of Saint Matthew, this is another split second in the life of the saint — the second before the executioner runs him through with his raised sword. But look more closely: the saint’s hand is raised, but not in protest or terror. Instead, (and this is the part that always chokes me up about this painting) he reaches for the hand extended by a hovering angel, as if accepting, perhaps even welcoming, his fate.
In the center of the chapel is the last of the three paintings Caravaggio made for the chapel, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. Perhaps it is the simplest of the three paintings, but it is truly magnificent. A sensually muscled angel descends to the saint, his garments swirling around him in great circles, while the saint looks up in surprise, having been deep in concentration in his work.
I swear you can hear the whoosh of the angel’s wings, and picture his garments swirling around him in slow motion, rustling softly. This is art… where it was meant to be.