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
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
- 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.
- 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.