Located inside San Luigi dei Francesi, the chapel was purchased by the French Cardinal Matteu Cointrel (Contarelli) as a place for his grave. After the building program stalled for many years, the heirs brought in Caravaggio for his first public commission. The chapel is located on the left transept, very close to the altar, which tells us Contarelli was very wealthy. The Chapel contains three panels. The first one you see is the left side panel, Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the Calling of St. Matthew is on in the right, and St. Matthew Writing the Gospels is in the center.
Martyrdom of St. Matthew shows Caravaggio’s inexperience with works this large. His alla prima technique – painting directly on the canvas without an outline, didn’t serve him very well in this work. The painting depicts the death of the Evangelist Matthew, who traveled to Ethiopia to spread the word of Christ. Here we see him at the actual moment of his death, as an Angel hands him a palm frond- the symbol of a martyr’s death. Caravaggio retains his famous tenebrism, but the composition shows more depth than his earlier works.
Caravaggio is much more successful in his second attempt, the Calling of St. Matthew. This scene is actually one of the more ambiguous stories of St. Matthew. Here, Christ appears with Peter, who is always depicted wearing gold and blue. Does Christ’s hand look familiar? It’s a dead giveaway for Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Artists of the time period often included influences of the renowned artists before them to show that they had studied and mastered their predecessors. One of the interesting questions this painting poses is who is St. Matthew? Is it the bearded man? Or the man counting the coins?
The central panel of the Chapel is actually the second work Caravaggio completed for the space. The original stretched too many bounds of the Counter Reformation. It was considered unflattering and didn’t cast the Saint in a good light. This version has the Saint at his traditional desk, while the Angel ticks off point on his fingers.