What other painting can compare to Saint Matthew and the Angel, by Caravaggio?
The Apostle Matthew is portrayed here facing a task that surpasses him in every imaginable way; physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Matthew is stressed out of his mind and has no clue as to what is going on, he seems to be trying hard to follow the instructions of the angel, but he just can’t. He is tense, and his body is the body of a peasant or wanderer used to hard labour (his physique does not recall the tax collector described by the Bible). The angel on the other hand is his complete opposite. The angel is charming and asexual, he (or she or both he and she) tenderly and patiently guides the hand of this simple man, trying to soften the situation but perhaps knowing that this just has to be done. The angel is not there to talk to Matthew about overcoming his fears; this creature is not a psychologist and cannot waste time on that. Instead he patiently but without hesitation moves Matthew’s hand through the text, while the Apostle tries clumsily to follow it, even when he is visibly overwhelmed by the task. He makes a monumental effort to write (something that he clearly does not know how to), because this angel, God, Fate or the Universe has decreed that he has to be the one to do it.
The Church, faithful to its tradition of open mindedness was not impressed by this painting, so a council of priests had Caravaggio paint a second PG13 version (“The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”), where Matthew looks like a Greek philosopher, fully in control of the situation and about to write a dissertation on the meaning of life. The Angel on this second version is very aware of personal space and keeps an appropriate distance. He (now the Angel is a he, no sexual ambiguities here) oversees that everything is done in accordance to some Heavenly law, but we can almost sense that there is no need; Matthew is inspired, learned and wise. He will do a great job:
But the first painting, that first version (destroyed during the Second World War, so all we have now is a photograph of that painting)… A man placed in front of a task or battle he has not chosen, does not fully comprehend and is not even sure why it is his battle to fight in the first place.
And he still tries to do it though; clumsily, ungracefully, and probably wishing he was doing something else.