The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) is an oil painting by Caravaggio. The painting on canvas hangs in Contarelli chapel altar in the church of the French congregation San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Italy. Caravaggio painted three canvases in the chapel: this one is hanging between The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew. This was not an easy commission for Caravaggio, and at least two of the three paintings had to be either replaced or repainted to satisfy his patron, the Cardinal Del Monte.
It is instructive to compare the two versions of the latter oil painting to see how provocative and controversial Caravaggio was in his time. Unfortunately, the first, rejected, version of this theme was destroyed in World War II, and we only have black and white reproductions. In the first version, the angel invades St Matthew's personal space and indulges in what appears more an erotic nudging than divine inspiration. The nubile angel intertwines with the old man, apparently whispering inspiration into his ear. The rejected painting can be compared to the earlier Caravaggio painting of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.
In the work featured on the altar, the angel belongs to an aerial and sublime dimension, enveloped in an encircling rippled sheet. The restless Matthew leans to work, as the angel enumerates for him the work to come. All is darkness but for the two large figures. Matthew appears to have rushed to his desk, his stool teetering into our space. His expression is sober.
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