Pope Francis and Caravaggio
25 September 2013
The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.
NAPLES, FLORIDA - Pope Francis said, "That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff."
These words are from: Pope Francis, interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, released on September 19 in answer to the question "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio now [Pope Francis]?" http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview
This interview has immediately provoked considerable public controversy. The pope mentioned Caravaggio three times in the extensive, wide-ranging interview. It is not an accident that he chose to talk about this painter. Caravaggio is a painter of saints and sinners, and American author Francine Prose has titled her biography of him, Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles.
The interview has spawned a plethora of enthusiastic articles in secular media speculating that the pope has changed Church teachings on homosexuals, abortion, and contraception. We can look at the interview and see if that is indeed true.
The pope's link to Caravaggio's great painting of The Calling of Saint Matthew is a link about mercy.
In the interview, Pope Francis said on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: “Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’" And the pope continued, "when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in the neighborhood of Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio."
Caravaggio killed a man in a sword fight duel in 1606. At that time he was the most famous painter in Italy. He was banished from Rome, a fugitive in exile with a price on his head. He never returned and died mysteriously at age 38.
There was no predicting that the young artist from Lombardi would become one of the world's greatest religious painters. It began suddenly with The Calling of Saint Matthew in 1600. Before that, as a young artist he barely survived on the streets of Rome, making small still life paintings and working for other artists. Art historian Sir Kenneth Clark has named The Calling of Saint Matthew the painting that changed the history of painting.
Just fifty years after the High Renaissance in Rome, where Michelangelo and Raphael presented the theology of the Church ideally transcendent in a heaven in the sky with Classical grace, Caravaggio brought the new Counter Reformation faith to the ground. He was a startling realist, inventing his own dramatic light on his models, his street friends, illumining and transforming them into saints. It was the time in Rome where Saint Phillip Neri and his followers on the streets of Camp Marzio lived a new classless faith.
It is not difficult to see how these realities resonate with the humble new pope.
Because Caravaggio was a brawler, fighter, and eventual murderer, always in and out of jail, being self-righteous was never part of his personality. He is a great artist because even when he painted the executioner, probably posed for by one of his friends, we get the feeling that he loves the man, and he is able to show us his humanity.
The part of the recent interview that has become controversial is when Pope Francis said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. That is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I am reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
He has not changed church doctrine. In the concept, "condemn the sin, and love the sinner," he has moved the accent to the latter.
Discourse, no matter how correct, does not change hearts. Pope Francis does, and that is his job.
Pope Francis said, “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” These are what make “the heart burn: as it did for the disciples at Emmaus....The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
And about the proposal of the Gospel he said, "Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being."
I maintain that Caravaggio excels at portraying "the mystery of the human being" and that is why Pope Francis contemplates and understands his message in paint.
Coincidentally, the Gospel for the day that the interview was released was about the woman, a known sinner, in the house of a Pharisee, who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears.
At a pub in a Catholic university town, I was a mostly silent participant in a lively discussion about the pope's statements on the hot issues. An older writer proposed that it was about not having a narrow, negative focus on some issues while also not proclaiming the larger good news. A younger, more zealous theology student took a more critical view. When I mentioned the Gospel of the day, the young man said, "yes, and Jesus said, 'go and sin no more.'" I think that -go and sin no more- is from the woman taken in adultery, a different passage, maybe it was implied here, but the central message of this gospel and the additional examples that Jesus used are about how the one who is forgiven much has great love. Jesus said, "her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love." Luke 7: 36-50
At the same time that some Catholics are worried about the pope being soft on important issues, the secular media is ready to definitively pronounce that church doctrine has been changed on controversial matters this week. That is even though most of them have never taken the time to know what the authentic teachings of the church are on gays, abortion, and contraception. Someone should tell them that the teachings of the church are clearly defined in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. We can see that Pope Francis, even while calling for compassion and understanding, has told us that those teachings are the same this week as they were last week.
The paint of Caravaggio the sinner, who portrayed Matthew the tax collector sinner, speaks to the pope today.