St. Matthew Writing the Gospel… twice

January 18, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio

Rapscallion, reprobate, knave, thug, murderer… all words well-suited to describe one of the most talented artists of the Roman Baroque era. Many details of the life of Michelangelo Merisi (aka Caravaggio) have, after all, emerged as a result of scholars poring over his voluminous police record. And yet, this man was also endowed with a singular ability to translate the Divine into paintings that touched all Romans, not just its wealthy, learned patrons. Unfortunately, this didn’t always go over particularly well…

matthew writes the Gospel - version 1Take his two versions of St. Matthew writing the Gospel. The first, meant for a private chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi and tragically destroyed during WWII (only photos of it remain), shows the saint as an oafish, seemingly illiterate giant of a man in a seventeenth-century laborer’s tunic. He clumsily balances the Book in his lap and his brow is knitted under the effort of his weighty task while the angel gently pushes his hand across the page. Chalk it up to our less formal twenty-first century world, but we can forgive the dusty foot in our faces because we’re awestruck by the intimacy of the scene. Mathieu Cointrel, the French cardinal who commissioned the paintings of his namesake for his private chapel, was not so readily won over.

Matthew writing the Gospel take twoEnter version two: the saint is now more easily recognizable in his era-appropriate robes and conventional halo and, although the angel is obviously suggesting important points, St. Matthew is definitely a literate man doing the work of writing on his own. Phew! Cointrel’s ‘Non!’ became a ‘Oui!’ as the decorum that was so important to a learned seventeenth-century audience was restored. Four hundred years later, this is the version that still hangs in the chapel.

But look how the stool the saint is leaning on perches dangerously off the edge of the stage-like floor. Classic Caravaggio, the scoundrel… dynamic tension all over again!

Matthew Gospel stool detail

Courtesy of Giulia Bernardini, M.A., instructor of art history and humanities. Join her in Rome this summer for Sensuality and Splendor, a one-week, on-site art seminar on High Renaissance and Baroque art in the Eternal City! For full details, visit

Giulia Bernardini

by Giulia Bernardini

Giulia, an instructor of art history and humanities at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the founder of WONDERFEAST, dedicated to providing art aficionados with unique artistic and cultural experiences in Italy and beyond.

Join Giulia for Sensuality and Splendor, an on-site art history seminar in Rome, Italy, from June 10-17, 2016.

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14 Responses to “St. Matthew Writing the Gospel… twice”

  1. GB

    Giulia, while I am most likely also biased (I am your brother after all), I can incontrovertibly say that your note and video are absolutely fantastic!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow, the video really brought this Note alive!! Can’t imagine how lovely a whole week of Giulia in Rome would be!

  3. Alex Cicchinelli


    Even a brother can be right. Don’t worry about it. She is great, passionate and communicative.


    father of eight, and youngest of nine biased, appreciative Abruzzese fratelli.

  4. What a lively delivery – interesting and enlightening. Thank you.
    Would love to be able to attend Giulia’s seminars especially Sensuality and Splendor.

  5. Great note!
    Wonderful snippet Giulia !
    Wish i could join your roman tour

  6. Grazie! Ah, Caravaggio…what a wonderful note, Giulia! I wish I was in Rome to come to your seminar. These tidbits and insights bring the art and the artist to life…and what a life!

  7. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    What a marvelous bonus to this note- having Giulia Bernardini in person via video!! Lucky people who can manage to be in Rome for her Sensuality and Splendor art seminar in June!!

  8. D. Bianchi

    Brava Giulia! My wife and I are huge fans of Caravaggio and try to find his paintings wherever we are in our trips, but you gave me some insight I lacked. Grazie. I can’t wait to return to those paintings. Like the previous writers, I hope to hear from you again.

  9. Ok – let’s go with the real art history thing – bring back Giulia! She is brilliant and we love seeing great art.

  10. Anita

    Great note and video, Giulia. Your passion for the subject comes through in both. I am with the others who wish they could join you for a week in Rome!


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