© Roberto Alborghetti Photos
In Rome, not far from the famous Piazza Navona, we can admire the Church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi) dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to St. Denis the Areopagite and St. Louis IX, king of France. The church was designed by Giacomo della Porta and built by Domenico Fontana between 1518 and 1589, and completed through the personal intervention of Catherine de’ Medici. It is the national church in Rome of France (it was chosen as the burial place for a number of higher prelates and members of the French community of Rome).
Italian artist Domenichino painted here one of his masterworks, the frescoes portraying the Histories of Saint Cecilia. Other artists worked here (as Cavalier D’Arpino, Francesco Bassano il Giovane, Giovanni Baglione, Jacopino del Conte, Tibaldi and Antoine Derizet).
But the church’s most famous treasure is the cycle of paintings in the Contarelli Chapel, painted by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) in 1599–1600 about the life of St. Matthew. This includes the three world-renowned canvases of The Calling of St Matthew (on the left wall), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (above the altar), and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (on the right wall). So, we have the extraordinary way to see great masterpieces by Caravaggio in one shot.
They are three of the greatest and most influential paintings ever produced in Italy, representing the ambivalence of Caravaggio paintings, which, though covering famous religious subjects, reveal a dramatic content (decapitations, crucifixions, depositions from the cross, etc) reflecting the situations of the real life. Caravaggio often used his friends as models, including prostitutes, card sharps, and other folks. One early travel guide to Rome says of him: “He painted chiefly plebian types”.
What is true is that Caravaggio’s three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel changed the way that people looked at painting and influenced countless artists who followed. The artist Cavalier D’Arpino received a commission to decorate the chapel for the French Cardinal Matteu Contreil (in Italian, Matteo Contarelli). Caravaggio was working as an apprentice for D’Arpino at the time, and when D’Arpino became too busy to complete the decoration, Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte, helped attain the commission for the artist.
Contarelli’s will stated that the chapel contain works depicting the life of St. Matthew, Contarelli’s namesake (Matteo is the Italian form of Matthew). The will was quite specific as to what should be painted – Saint Mathew’s calling by Jesus; his divine inspiration to write his gospel; and his martyrdom. Caravaggio had never worked on such large canvasses before, and X-rays reveal he reworked the paintings a number of times.
These three paintings, Caravaggio’s first major church commission, cemented his reputation, and he continued to work constantly until his death in 1610 at the age of 38.