This picture looks very easy to place: it’s obviously a typical work of the Utrecht School, the group of artists who painted in Holland and travelled to Italy, their style heavily influenced by Michelangelo da Caravaggio, that great inventor of a new realism sharpened by taut draughtsmanship in canvases made dramatic by powerful contrasts of penetrating light and swathes of black shadow. All those qualities are to be found in this canvas, together with the kind of vivid characterisation and dramatic narrative that Caravaggio made famous. And we know the picture is by Matthias Stom – but very little else can be definitely stated about him.
Even his name has been uncertain: he was always known as Stomer, but scholars have now decided it was, as he signed himself, plain Stom. The dates of his birth and death have been deduced from available evidence, but are still conjectural. And although there is a clear connection, stylistically, with Utrecht, particularly with Honthorst and Terbruggen of that city, he probably wasn’t born there, and perhaps came from the southern Netherlands – Flanders, now Belgium. That detail remains uncertain, but it’s quite an important difference: Holland was Protestant, Flanders Catholic, and that might affect an artist’s approach to religious subject matter like this.
But because of the powerful influence on his work of Caravaggio, an Italian Catholic, the dramatic wins over the domestic and this scene of Christ summoning one of his apostles to leave his tax-collecting and follow him becomes a moment of high drama. Christ Himself, in the shadows to one side of the group, raises a hand in a gesture that seems almost like that of a hypnotist, drawing Matthew, in the centre of the picture and illuminated by a positive glare of light, as though by the power of a will so strong that he cannot resist it.
Matthew’s expression, the most vividly presented of all the faces here, is one of shock, almost fright, as he registers the irresistible force of Christ’s summons. His companions, belonging as they do to the old way of life that he is abruptly abandoning, are disposed on the edges of the design, just out of the strongest beam of light, but in carefully gradated degrees of marginality. They embody the process of Matthew’s transformation as figures inhabiting a rapidly altering reality. Matthew himself was something of a pariah among the Jews of first-century Palestine. As a tax-collector he was a functionary of the Roman state and an embodiment of what the indigenous people regarded as a form of oppression. (It was in response to a taxation edict from Emperor Augustus that Christ’s parents had travelled to Bethlehem at the time of his birth thirty years before this event.) We can therefore see the group gathered round Matthew as a somewhat shady clique: the old man using scales to weigh coins is obviously part of his ‘office’ and the authoritative older man at the extreme right may be Matthew’s boss, slightly impatient at the interruption. Jesus arrives and ignores them all – all except the young man he has singled out for great responsibility, despite his pariah status, and who in Stom’s picture is singled out by that brilliant light.
Did the fact that the newly created disciple shares the same name as the artist himself add to the significance of the scene for the painter? Does the picture allude in ways we shall never know to an event in Stom’s own life? That brightly lit face is, after all, a very remarkable portrait.