Before he moved into the more exalted realms of history painting (and of religious painting in particular), Caravaggio was known for his still-lifes of fruit and flowers and his Roman genre scenes. “The Call of Matthew’ (now in the Prado) is full of allusions to this earlier oeuvre, and in particular to “The Cardsharps’ (Kimbell, Fort Worth) and “The Gypsy Fortune Teller’ (Pinoteca Capitolina, Rome).

Matthew is seated in his office with a group of dubious companions, two of whom – the round-faced boy with the feather in his hat and the young gallant at the centre of the composition – are familiar models from other works. They were probably part of Caravaggio’s extensive drinking circle at the Taverna del Orso. Across the dingy apartment floods a dramatic shaft of light which point out Matthew, and his startled expression (horror? surprise? humility?). In the triangular shadow below this mysterious light are Jesus and Peter.

The Call of Matthew: Caravaggio
It is a composition of careful orchestrated contrasts. In the light the clothes of the two boys (are they the pages of some noble family in their Sunday-best livery?) are shown in all their finery, velvet contrasting in texture with sumptuous satin. In the shadows Jesus and Peter are soberly, even shabbily dressed in toga-like garments of homespun cloth.

They are visitors to this seventeenth century Roman back parlour from another more austere, more classical age. The hand of Jesus singles out Matthew in a gesture which is a direct allusion to the most famous hand in Renaissance painting; that of God on the Sistine ceiling.

Matthew (the centre of a genre-scene like many another) is singled out, to his amazement, by the finger of history (or in this case of history painting). In a moment, we can be sure, he will take the coin from his hat, put it down on the table and leave his friends forever.

Mark Stevens