A Renaissance Conception of Martyrdom

Tracey J. Kinney

Caravaggio and Matthew

The historical record on Matthew the Evangelist (also, Matthew the Apostle; also, Levi) is virtually non-existent. All that can be confirmed is that he was likely a tax-collector at a customs house near the Sea of Galilee. Given his occupation, it is assumed that he would have been greatly disliked by those with whom he had contact. Christian tradition tells that Levi/Matthew became a disciple of Jesus, accompanied him during his ministry, and was a witness to the resurrection. Levi/Matthew evidently spent the remainder of his life preaching the gospel until his death by execution in the year 74. However, both the nature and place of his death are contested, with some historians arguing that he was not, in fact, executed. There is also considerable dispute as to whether Levi/Matthew was actually the author of the Gospel of Matthew, or if in fact this was simply attributed to him by the Church fathers many years after his death. None of these debates are evident in Caravaggio’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”, completed between 1599 and 1600.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

Figure 1.5 The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio c.1599-1600. Click on the + for analytical prompts

Oil on canvas, 3.23m x 3.43m, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What do we learn of Matthew/Levi’s death in Caravaggio’s painting?
  2. Why do you think that Caravaggio chose to depict the events in this way?
  3. What does this depiction tell us about the time in which Caravaggio lived?
  4. Does this painting align with or challenge the themes discussed earlier in this chapter regarding martyrdom in the early Christian faith?


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