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The Calling of Saint Matthew

Claes Berchem (1620-1683) and Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1660). Mauritshuis. – The Hague. Ca. 1657.

Jesus cured a paralytic in Capharnaum. Matthew the Evangelist recalled that as Jesus was walking from there he saw ‘a man called Matthew’, sitting at the tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” And Matthew got up and followed him and became an apostle G38 . Matthew was the only Evangelist to tell this story and it is supposed that this same tax collector wrote the first Gospel. Little is known of Matthew’s life. He is supposed to have been martyred in Ethiopia and the Norman adventurer and conqueror Robert Guiscard brought his relics to Salerno in Sicily.

Scenes of the life of Matthew the Evangelist are therefore rather seldom in the history of art. Since practically the only element that can be learned from Matthew was his calling by Jesus, this is almost the only theme that painters used for the apostle Matthew.

Claes Berchem (1620-1683) and Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1660/1661) were two so-called ‘Italianates’. This was a movement of Dutch painting of the seventeenth century that was mostly centred in the town of Utrecht, although also painters of other towns of Holland participated. Utrecht was a town of Holland where an important Catholic community remained within the Protestant majority of the Northern Netherlands. In a more Catholic town, pictures of Rome were not refused. Many painters of Utrecht had visited Italy and Rome, or they had teachers who had been there. Neither Berchem nor Weenix worked much in Utrecht, though. Claesz Berchem was born in Haarlem and worked there first, then he moved to Amsterdam. He had been on a tour of Italy before 1646. Jan Baptist Weenix the Elder was born in Amsterdam and worked also mostly in that seaport, though he died near Utrecht. He liked to paint seaports, beach scenes and landscapes with ruins. He had equally been to Rome from 1643 to 1647, around the same time as Berchem.

Italian landscapes and scenes from classic antiquity set in ancient Roman ruins were popular among the wealthy merchants of the Dutch towns. One of these examples is the ‘Calling of Matthew’ in which Weenix probably painted the landscape and Claes Berchem the figures.

The scene is shown through a roman arch. The tax office of the Gospel is in full activity inside the Roman ruins. In the background are Renaissance buildings with the cupola that had become a prominent feature of the grandest Italian cathedrals of Florence, Venice and Rome, but that still reminded of the entirely Roman Pantheon. On the left in the background is a port. The buildings may be references to the three greatest Italian cities: the lagoon port for Venice, the cupola for Rome’s Pantheon and the more austere square buildings on the right for Florence. But the whole, except the ruins, could point to Venice. The sun drenches the scene of the far architecture and port so that the shadows of the building inside the arch are welcome. For Berchem and Weenix this offered an occasion to show their skills in depicting the play of the light on the figures and animals, as they had learned from the Caravaggists in Rome.

The many figures of Claes Berchem are dressed in the Italian fashion, yet we recognise all the elements of Dutch genre painting. There are various animals in the scene, even a cow and sheep although this is an urban scene. The animals stressed the pastoral character of Italy. There are various subthemes. A woman is suckling a baby in front of her husband. Two men are flirting with a well-dressed lady. Men are gambling on the street. Papers are being exchanged. A young boy is guarding a peacock in his arms to protect it from dogs in a hunting scene on the right. Everybody is engaged in some activity and all figures are painted differently. These scenes were occasions for the painters to show their skills as for example in the magnificent colours of the peacock.

The proper scene of the tax collection office is on a podium to the right. Several monumental stairs lead to the collectors. Matthew sits behind his papers and his helpers show stone tablets with the law, which is here a reference to the Law of Moses. Jesus comes up and stretches his arm to call Matthew away.

Jacobus de Voragine cites Isidore in the ‘Golden Legend’ to tell that the customhouse was a place at a seaport where taxes were paid on ships’ cargoes and seamen’s wages G49 . So it was quite natural for the painters to depict the scene in a seaport.

The painting of Weenix and Berchem has assembled all the ingredients that could be appreciated by the rich Dutch middle class traders. There is the port and the ships with the full-blown sails from which Holland had gained its wealth. There are the many separate genre scenes and the references to the Dutch countryside with its animals, cows and sheep. There is the hunting scene and one can imagine the better to do merchants and nobility of Holland taking delight in hunting. Of course, added is the exoticism of ancient Italy. This is a clever and very typical painting from the Dutch Italianate movement, which includes almost all style elements of the worldly art of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

Berchem and Weenix were also intelligent artists, who knew the geometries of balance of composition in a picture. Thus one can admire how all the smaller scenes of figures lead in crescendo upward to the right scene, to the figure of Jesus. Even though Jesus is lost amidst the crowd, this natural movement of figures draws the view to him. The right part of the canvas is thus emphasised. This part lies under the diagonal that goes from the lower left to the upper right, as in many Baroque paintings. But Claes Berchem, who painted the architecture, broke this space intelligently with the ancient Roman ruins on the right. The left part of the frame has therefore been opened to the port view so that a natural blend of figures and landscape was created. This part of the picture is set under a particularly clear, very bright Italian sky. Thus there is a nice equilibrium between the bustle of the many figures and the open space created above the harbour. In many pictures Jesus is shown in the middle of a crowd. People are at their daily work; the Gospel scene is only one of the many activities of the picture. Artists stressed the human nature of Jesus in this way. They represented Jesus and what happened to Jesus as one of the many common events of life. The artists tried to convey the message that the extraordinary events of Jesus’ life were small and intimate in the vastness of the historical upheavals of Roman times. Northern painters thus more than often brought the epic scenes of the Gospels closer to the viewers in an attempt of direct communication between artist and spectator. In particular Dutch artists emphasised this view of Christ.

The ‘Calling of Matthew’ seems at first a dull, mannered genre picture made by lesser artists. But when one looks more closely, one is astounded at the intelligence and skills of these old masters. They were out to please but they did not compromise their art. There is so much to discover in a picture like this that it remains a joy. The picture is a happy way of presenting a Biblical scene, which must have delighted the commissioners. One can imagine the picture hanging in a Dutch interior with a merchant and his wife sitting side by side in their nicest room in front of it, maybe even in the house of tax collectors. The couple would be reflecting on their children, on the fortunes of trade and on their household. Once in every while there would be a silence between them. They would throw a glance on the Berchem and Weenix picture and discover a new surprise each time.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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