WORCESTER — Nicknamed “il prete genovese” (the Genoa priest), Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644) had his true calling — painting — deferred when he entered a monastery in 1598 as a 17-year-old. Extracting himself from the brotherhood proved harder than he thought.
Ten years after Strozzi joined the Capuchins, his father died, and so he left the monastery to take care of his mother, and began to earn income through his painting.
By 1620, he was already good enough to paint this, one of the most riveting paintings in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum. It shows Christ inviting Matthew, a tax collector, to join him as one of his disciples. Christ is over on the right, his identity confirmed by a mere slip of a halo. Matthew — poor Matthew — is enduring a moment of psychic convulsion.
THE CALLING OF SAINT MATTHEW by Bernardo Strozzi
His physical recoil (“You don’t mean me?”) and gesture of protestation (“I couldn’t possibly, can’t you see I’m busy counting money?”) remind us of similar reactions by Christ’s mother, portrayed in countless Annunciations.
Never, however, was an Annunciation so flutteringly penumbral; never did the profound moment of being chosen unfold in such a dark, masculine, and compromised realm.
Strozzi’s lively, slightly smudged brushwork, seems to anticipate the tonal blur of Velazquez, whom he would briefly meet in Venice about 10 years later. And his shadowy realism grows, of course, out of Caravaggio, whose influence on early-17th-century Italian painting was immense.
Notice all the hand gestures that flutter around the center of the picture, like separate, simultaneous conversations at a conference for the deaf. Note, too, the use of shadow and light — the way, for instance, the
noses of the four men (including Matthew) on the left alternate between illumination and dark silhouette.
And then, marvel at the way Strozzi lifts what might otherwise have been an image of dark sobriety into something transcendent with his vibrant patches of primary color: yellow cape, red shirt, blue hats — complemented by strong secondaries — green table cloth, mauve shirt.
When his mother died, in about 1630, the Capuchins tried to reclaim Strozzi. He resisted, was briefly imprisoned, and then fled to Venice. He didn’t want to be chosen.