Historical context

Happenstance granted Caravaggio his first major commission, in 1598. Matthieu Cointrel (a Frenchman whose name became Italianized as Matteo Contarelli), who became cardinal under Pope Gregory XIII, was having the Church of S. Luigi Dei Francesi rebuilt, and the Contarelli Chapel added to it. Muziano and Cavaliere d'Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari, late Italian Mannerist painter) worked on this renovation, but in the meantime Matteo Contarelli passed away. The person appointed to execute the latter's will, a certain Virgilio Crescenzi, was put in charge of the project's continuation. In 1596, feeling the project had been too greatly slowed down, the clergy of S. Luigi dei Francesi expressed their annoyance to the Pope. The Pope replied by contacting Crescenzi, asking that things be speeded up and, upon the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, commissioning Caravaggio to provide three paintings for the chapel.
The cycle inaugurated in 1601 caused such a scandal that one panel was totally refused.
These three works, based on the life of St. Matthew, in themselves summarize Caravaggio's entire output: the painter in all his facets is present in the Contarelli chapel.
First, however, let us consider two major trademark features of the Caravaggio "revolution":
  1. This painter's orchestration of his compositions transforms the play of light and dark into a vital dynamic agent. The human body thus loses the basic role attributed to it by the Renaissance.

  2. His approach repudiated the Mannerist trend which featured a multiplicity of exaggerated and sophisticated formulas in order to escape the overly rigid aesthetic values of the Renaissance. In fact, the Mannerist artists succeeded only in multiplying certain constraints, while Caravaggio dared to cut all ties to the past.