The Wonderful Power of Writing

Caravaggio, St. Matthew and the Angel, 1602, colorized photograph.

In addition to being a marketable skill on LinkedIn, writing is — or was — an awe-inspiring technology, representing a power to make language go beyond one person’s limits in terms of time, space and memory, that is, beyond speech (until the technology of sound recording). Here’s a well-known painting by Caravaggio, the notorious Italian Baroque painter who, in “real” life, was not usually on quite the right side of the law — his police record is long and colourful. This painting no longer actually exists — it was burned in 1945, and has been reproduced from black and white photographs, a story that itself says something about the powers of writing.  More to the immediate point, though, it depicts the saint getting a bit of help with his writing.

In keeping with some of the sketchy biographical material on Matthew, but perhaps more in keeping with Caravaggio’s reputation as someone who relished throwing a spanner in the works, Matthew is shown as casual — sloppy? — about his dress and grooming. His feet are dirty. He’s pretty offensive, people said. Called from his work as a tax collector to become an evangelist, Matthew raised some objections about Jesus’s recruitment policies (Jesus is said to have said that it was sinners who needed the Word most urgently.). The painting, when it did exist between 1602 and 1945, wasn’t always considered suitable for polite company either.  Church authorities disagreed.

Do we assume that the angel is helping Matthew write because this is the Gospel, and a writer bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity is likely to get help from above?  We also might reasonably think that Matthew was illiterate, and needed the angel’s help to write anything at all. The angel is pretty substantial, the whole painting full of strong, solid forms, convincing. I like to “read” it as an assertion that there is something mysterious about writing as such, that it taps a wonderful power — larger, longer, grander and more mysterious than that of any one fairly ordinary person with dirty feet.

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