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Sacred Art as a Pedagogical Tool

by Matthew E. Peszek

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  • Description:
    This article explains that the primary goal of sacred art is to educate the viewer and teach Catholic doctrine. The author illustrates how sacred art communicates a religious lesson by using Caravaggio's The Calling of St. Matthew as an example.
  • Larger Work:
    Adoremus Bulletin
  • Publisher & Date:
    Adoremus — Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, St. Louis, MO, May 2009

In the summer of 2008, I spent several weeks in Rome investigating the Council of Trent’s stance on sacred art and the effect that this had on the art produced during the seventeenth century. In pursuing my study, I visited nearly 100 churches and saw many altarpieces and paintings. This led me to consider how sacred art was used as a pedagogical tool, and how the imagery could teach by making a direct connection between the sacred subject and the life of an ordinary person.

The Council of Trent had briefly addressed the role of art during the Twenty-Fifth Session, in December 1563. In the Decree on the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of the Saints, and on Sacred Images, the Council stated:

Moreover, let the bishops teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of the faith, which ought to be borne in mind and constantly reflected upon.1

This statement gave a basic direction and key goal for what sacred art should achieve. The decree stated that the primary goal of sacred art was to educate the viewer and teach Catholic doctrine. [Ed. note: Actually, the Decree does not say that the primary goal of sacred art is to educate and teach. This is erroneously inferred by the author. The decree states that sacred art does, in fact, have this effect of educating and teaching, as opposed to those (particularly Protestants) who wanted to strip churches of art for fear that these images would somehow stand in the way of God. The Church knows well that the primary purpose of all art is to express beauty, and so touch the heart of man, opening him to the absolute; and that sacred art is to do this with subjects and themes which relate to God's saving love for man. This note is necessary in an otherwise fine article to avoid leading the reader to conclude that the Church has somehow defined that sacred art must be primarily pedagogical and didactic, or that the value of sacred art is to be judged in the first place not by its beauty but by the clarity of its “message”, a criterion which ultimately undermines all art.] The Council also admonished bishops to make sure the paintings were free from anything profane, and from doctrinal and theological error, since they were to be used in a didactic — or teaching — manner. The images were meant to strengthen the personal faith of the viewers, and to increase their desire to emulate the lives and deeds of Christ, the Virgin Mary and all the saints. This would educate the faithful and constantly remind them of the Catholic Church’s glorious past and inevitable glorious future by showing the sons and daughters from the Church’s past engaged in acts of religious conversion, propagating the faith to others, and even sacrificing their own lives for the faith.

Caravaggio’s Pedagogical Painting
To illustrate how sacred art could communicate a religious lesson in this way, we will look at one painting in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi near the Piazza Navona: The Calling of St. Matthew, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). (See illustration on page one.) This is one of three paintings from the life of Saint Matthew that Caravaggio painted between 1599 and 1602 in the Contarelli Chapel, the fifth and last chapel on the left of the entrance of the church. The arrangement of the three paintings is chronological: The Calling of St. Matthew is on the left, The Inspiration of St. Matthew is in the center, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is on the right.

The Calling of St. Matthew depicts Matthew 9:9, when Christ calls Matthew to leave his life as a tax collector and to follow Him: “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, ‘Follow me’. And he rose and followed Him”.

In this painting, Caravaggio shows Jesus, accompanied by Peter, entering the scene from the right toward a group of five flamboyantly dressed men seated at a table, evidently counting money.2 Jesus points toward one of the men, and Peter echoes the Lord’s gesture. Unlike the tax collectors, Jesus and Peter are shown in traditional robes.

One of the means an artist could use to achieve the didactic function of sacred art was depicting biblical figures in a contemporary environment, dressed in contemporary clothing. While portraying biblical figures as apparently engaged in seventeenth-century life is anachronistic, this technique was employed by artists to engage the viewer in a more direct way, making the sacred subject more closely related to contemporary experience.

The atmosphere of the painting is dark (as is the chapel in which it is placed). The only source of light streams in diagonally above and behind Christ, illuminating the faces of the tax collectors as Matthew is made aware of his calling. It is interesting that the painted light follows the same path as the natural light that flows in from the upper lunette in the chapel.3 During the morning hours, the natural light merges with the painted light to shine on the men’s faces. This dramatic effect of merging natural and painted light gives the viewer a daily reenactment of the calling of Matthew as he becomes aware of his vocation.

There is some ambiguity about which of the seated tax collectors — to which Christ, Peter and one of the men point — is Matthew.4 Is he the surprised bearded man, and is he pointing to himself? Or is he the young man at the end of the table who bows his head as if in shame at his unworthiness of the calling? Could this ambiguity be intentional?

The whole scene seems to illustrate the response of a person to Christ’s call. Saint Matthew left his life “in the world” in order to follow Christ, but not all of the figures in the painting are looking at Him. Do the men who are not looking at Christ represent those who reject Him and are thus deprived of the promise of eternal life?

The standing man wearing glasses ignores Christ and Saint Peter. (In Renaissance and Baroque art, wearing glasses often signified spiritual blindness.) Although it is not clear what the bespectacled man is looking at, he seems to be looking at coins on the table. This may show his rejection of Christ, and also warn that money is temporal and will not last forever. Right after the account of the call in Matthew 9, we read that Jesus “sat at the table” with the tax collectors “in the house”, and when questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus said “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:10-13).

The setting of this biblical scene — the tax collectors’ place of business — would have been familiar to the viewer of Caravaggio’s time. It would have resembled many anonymous buildings in Rome. Again, the pervasive darkness makes it unclear whether it is an interior or exterior setting. In either case, given the proximity of the church to Piazza Navona and the fact Caravaggio lived in the area, it may well have been typical of buildings in the area.5

Timelessness of Sacred Art
What is most important about this dramatic painting from a religious perspective is that it serves as a lesson to the viewer to be willing to follow Christ’s call. It does this by setting up a “timeless moment” that creates a “religious event re-enacted in a recognizably everyday context”.6 The very placement of the figures illustrates the transition between living in the world and choosing to leave the world.

Alfred Moir notes that Christ and Saint Peter enter from the right with light above and behind them while the left side shows Saint Matthew and his companions sitting in a darkened area. This could be construed as a separation between the physical world on the left side and the spiritual world on the right side.7 Christ’s outstretched arm and hand reach across the darkness to the figures, inviting them (and viewers) to leave the world and join Him. Regardless of whether Saint Matthew is the bearded man in the middle or the young man at the end of the table, Moir sums up this painting by saying the work shows “characteristic human indecision after a challenge or command and before reaction”.

This painting does reflect the perennial human indecisiveness about whether to accept a vocation to follow Christ. Thus, even across the centuries, a person who looks at this painting may not only meditate upon Saint Matthew’s calling, but can also contemplate Christ’s call to “follow me” in their personal religious discernment.

The Council of Trent’s 1563 description of the purpose of sacred art: to portray “the stories of the mysteries of our redemption” in order to instruct, to educate, is well realized in the Calling of St. Matthew, painted almost forty years later. Caravaggio’s painting makes use of familiar aspects of daily life of the time so that people could understand more clearly and immediately what they saw. Though daily life in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is far from our own experience, of course, the essential message of this painting — of the human response to Christ’s call, and about answering a vocation — is not confined to its own time, but remains current and valuable to the twenty-first century viewer.

My time in Rome helped me to realize that sacred art could be used as a pedagogical tool that teaches spiritual lessons in the language of the streets. This allows sacred art to reach out to the viewer and teach simple tenets of the faith while providing spiritual and moral instruction in an understandable manner that relates to one’s own experience.

My study in Rome also gave me a better understanding of the spiritual renewal of the Counter-Reformation period — in far greater depth than I had gained through reading and looking at pictures in books. In many ways, Rome is a city frozen in time where one can see Roman ruins in situ and visit churches and neighborhoods that look very much as they did at the time of the Council of Trent. Whenever I entered a church for the first time, whether it was large or small, I could perceive the religious fervor and devotion of past and present congregations.

Though many centuries have passed, the spirituality among parishioners of today seems undiminished as they attend Mass and say private devotions near the historic side-altars and chapels of Rome. Seeing people from all walks of life reflecting and contemplating before the many statues and paintings of the past showed me that art still has a special effect on people that differs little from the Council of Trent’s goal to make sure the people are “instructed and confirmed in the articles of the faith”.

Notes
1 The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, ed. the Rev. H.J. Schroeder, OP (Rockford: TAN Books, 1978), 216. The full text of this decree is also accessible online in an edition of the Council documents edited and translated by J. Watworth (London: Dolman, 1848) http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct25.html.

2 The clothing of the figures would have been seen by contemporary viewers as somewhat outdated, unusual, and nonconformist. For more discussion on the significance of clothing in the art of Caravaggio, see Anitra Nettleton’s article, “Costume in Caravaggio: A Reconsideration of Genre Paintings” in Art and Articles in Honour of Heather Martienssen. Frieda Harmeson, ed. (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1973). 60-68.

3 While it would appear that Caravaggio coordinated the painted and natural light sources to correspond, he actually did not, according to Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio (Boulder: Westview Press, 1983), 96.

4 Howard Hibbard says Saint Matthew is pointing to himself as if to say “who, me?”, and Catherine Puglisi adds that the shadow of the bearded man’s pointing index finger confirms that he is pointing to himself (Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2000), 160. However, Angela Hass believes Saint Matthew is the younger man at the end of the table whose head is bowed down since the “realization is delayed for a brief moment while the full meaning of the Call gradually penetrates Matthew’s being”; and that the younger figure could be Saint Matthew before he left his life “in the world”, hence the reason he is finely dressed and clean-shaven. Thus, this painting could depict a time when Saint Matthew was called as a young man. (Angela Hass, “Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew Reconsidered”, in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, volume 51, 1988), 246.

5 Howard Hibbard and Angela Hass believe the scene takes place outdoors. Hibbard says it is outdoors since the darker background in the left corner of the painting seems to indicate a corner of a building (Hibbard, Caravaggio, 96), and Angela Hass notes that the light would have to reflect from a wall adjoining the corner line behind the man with glasses. Hass mentions this fact in a footnote that another scholar, W. Schöne, had made in his article, “Über das Licht in der Malerei”, (1954). See Hass, “Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew Reconsidered”, 246. However, Alfred Moir and Catherine Puglisi believe the scene takes place indoors. Moir says Christ and Saint Peter have just opened a door and filled a dark room with light, which is the reason why the two figures closest to them appear surprised (Alfred Moir, Caravaggio (The Library of Great Painters), New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1982, 92); and Puglisi says the scene is the interior of a sparsely decorated tax office with a table set under the window (Puglisi, Caravaggio, 160).

6 John Gash. Caravaggio (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1988), 65.

7 Moir, Caravaggio (The Library of Great Painters), 92.

Matthew Peszek pursued graduate studies in art history at the University of Florida and completed his Master of Arts in December 2008 with a specialization in Renaissance and Baroque art.

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