Caravaggio and the Doctrine of Humanity

Jane Barter Moulaison is currently writing a book that takes up the Christian doctrine called anthropology, or the doctrine of humanity. Below is an excerpt in which she argues that the New Testament understands the human creature primarily as one who is called by Christ and called to respond to this calling.
In San Luigi dei Francesci hangs an enigmatic painting by Caravaggio titled “The Calling of St. Matthew.”  A group of tax collectors are seated around the table in a dark and austere tavern with books opened for reckoning and coins splayed for counting. Suddenly, Jesus and Peter enter and disturb their commerce and announce a light that contrasts wildly with the bleakness of the room. Though Jesus points to just one of them, all are visible in the bright light of the door that he just opened. All stand before his light exposed: some appear to be captivated by his appearance, while others refuse to answer his gaze.

The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio (Photo: Boston College)

Only one seems aware that this house call is, in fact, a summons, and that it is one specifically intended for him. While drawing away from the too-bright light of the open door, he also dares to look directly at Jesus, and responds with brows raised in inquiry and a tenuous finger pointed to his heart. “Me?” “Yes” is Christ’s reply, given in the subtle lift of his countenance. In a moment Jesus will speak those terrible and wonderful words to Levi/Matthew: “Follow me.”
Several art critics note that Jesus’ hand cast toward Matthew is reminiscent of that of Michelangelo’s God pointing actively toward the first man in the Creation of Adam (Fred S. Kleiner, 2009). Nevertheless, the flex and arch of the self-same hand also echoes the hand of Adam. Christ is at once the one who calls Matthew to life, but the life he gives is formed in relation to him, who is also man, the second Adam, and who thus makes possible the way of following.
The doctrine of humanity in the New Testament is replete with the ambiguity of The Calling of Saint Matthew. Humans are called by Christ and given a new standing and identity before him. Such an identity stands in marked contrast to the life that they once led, but it is also an identity that is formed and shaped in accordance with him. Thus, Jesus does not leave his followers bereft of identity as he calls them; he instead calls them — tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, the poor — to become like him and to become one with him.
Carvaggio captures the human response to this divine initiative that is central to New Testament conceptions of the self. To answer Christ’s summons is not merely to respond in blind obedience. It is the furtive and yet bold trust that enables Christ’s followers to match his gaze and respond, even in clumsy and tenuous gestures.
Behind the raised eyebrows and uncertain hand lies the heart and mind of a creature who knows that Christ’s calling has profound personal implications. It is also to know that the “I” who is called is called toward something — to the light that breaks upon a shadowed present. To echo Psalm 36: 9, in his light we see the light of humanity. We also, as in Carvaggio, see our human weakness. In his light we see our eyes cast steadily down upon our lucre. We acknowledge our defiant, apathetic, or merely curious gaze. And above all, we see our hesitation, and we feel the anxious inertia of Matthew whose query is frozen in time as a sign of all the hesitation, fear and exhilaration of being called.
Jane Barter Moulaison is Chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at the University of Winnipeg and an Anglican priest.

While the question of human nature is not a prominent theme in the New Testament, and clearly of far lesser significance than Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension; nevertheless, the New Testament has much to say implicitly about characters such as Matthew, who are gathered in bleak rooms, engaged in questionable activity and who (whether they know it or not) long for the light of the world to enter in. And, therefore, it also has much to say to us today.


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