Feast of St. Matthew
In the Church of San Luigi in Rome there’s a painting by the sixteenth century artist, Caravaggio, about the martyrdom St. Matthew.
In this painting the apostle has been thrown to the floor next to an altar, struck down while offering the Eucharist. An altar boy recoils with a scream of terror as an almost naked executioner prepares to strike Matthew dead with the mighty swing of a spike-studded iron mallet. The executioner’s near nakedness is a reminder that even the little he is wearing will be taken away, while Matthew prostrate on the floor and clothed in priestly garments, is about to receive even more. The scene is crowded with other near naked bystanders who have slinked away while a few richly clothed persecutors give silent, royal approval. They do not see the angel reaching downward from heaven with a palm of victory stretched out towards St. Matthew’s uplifted hand.
Tucked in the center of the painting is Caravaggio’s own self-portrait. He may be accusing himself of being a silent accomplice by just standing there, for his own life left much to be desired. Or, he may be saying that this martyrdom, and every witness to Christ, transcends time, and proclaims to people of every age and place that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who we are commanded to follow. In the Bible, the world’s perennial best seller, Matthew’s Gospel is the favorite of many. By following Christ this humble tax collector became a collector of sinners, an evangelist for the whole world by recording the good news of salvation for those who follow Christ as we are trying to do.