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Object of the Month: May 2022

St. Matthew with the Angel

Oil on canvas

Salomon Koninck

Dutch, 1609-1656

Salomon Koninck was a Dutch Baroque painter and engraver. Throughout his career, he was heavily influenced by the innovative Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn and adopted the great artist’s theatrical lighting and composition. It is only fitting then that Koninck’s St. Matthew with the Angel has been displayed in M&G’s Rembrandt Hall, featuring works by Rembrandt and many of his students. While not a household name like Rembrandt, Koninck and his work provide a wonderful reminder of the spectacular.

St. Matthew with the Angel is not an unusual subject for Koninck as many of his paintings focused on philosophers and scholars. One example is The Hermit, which bears similar resemblance to his Matthew. Both include an elderly man poring over a book, but the distinction between the two is the presence of the youthful angel at Matthew’s side. Throughout art history, Matthew has been paired with many objects, including a halberd or sword, but his most common attributes are a book and an angel. In M&G’s painting, the angel leans next to him as if offering words of inspiration for his empty manuscript. By placing the two so close together, Koninck creates an intimate conversation that draws the viewer into the scene and the mystery of the apostle’s text.

While the other gospel writers certainly had divine support when they penned their descriptive records of Christ’s life, Matthew is the only one consistently shown in art with a winged man or angel. This pairing has been a tradition since the early depictions of Matthew, and many art historians credit the second-century bishop St. Irenaeus as one of the first to ascribe the imagery. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus argued that all four gospels were necessary to understand a complete picture of Jesus Christ. He referenced Revelation 4:6-7, which talks of “four living creatures” surrounding the throne of God. These winged beings appeared to be like a lion, ox, eagle, and the fourth had a face of a man. Irenaeus assigned each evangelist one of the four creatures, and he chose the latter to represent the gospel of Matthew because the disciple and former tax collector focused on Jesus’ human lineage. While some of the gospel writers’ attributes changed from Irenaeus’ original designation, Matthew maintained the angel or winged man.

Another figure in church history, Rabanus Maurus, helped solidify the visual pairing of Matthew with an angel. In the ninth century, Maurus wrote a commentary on the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which discusses the four faces of the creatures described in Ezekiel 1:10. Like Irenaeus, he claimed Matthew’s symbol is the man because of the inclusion of Jesus Christ’s earthly genealogy. However, Maurus further distinguished each gospel writer’s iconography, explaining that each symbol represents a mystery surrounding the life of Christ. And for Matthew, the symbol of man recalls the miraculous Incarnation. With such extensive research and support, it is no wonder that Matthew was paired with an angel. For nearly two thousand years, artists in the Western world have carried on this traditional iconography for the apostle.

As shown, Koninck’s St. Matthew with the Angel is not unusual in its symbolism and its subject matter, nor groundbreaking in in its use of artistic technique. However, Koninck does emphasize a closeness in the relationship between the earthly and the spiritual. Through divine direction and inspiration, the gospels were written by feeble men. It is through that spiritual intervention that we are able to read the gospels and remind ourselves of the wonders of God. Art is simply one reminder that when God uses frail, earthly things, He creates something spectacular.

KC Christmas Beach, M&G volunteer and former graduate assistant


Published 2022


Object of the Month: July 2019

The Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

Oil on Canvas, 1630s

Guido Reni

Bolognese, 1575-1642

The painter of this elegant series of the Four Evangelists is Guido Reni. Reni is not only one of the most revered 17th-century painters but also one of the Baroque era’s most fascinating personalities. His friend Carlo Cesare Malvasia wrote an illuminating biography acknowledging the painter’s paradoxical character.  Although deeply religious, Reni was plagued by an addiction to gambling; although renowned for his generosity, he was notoriously thin-skinned, and although labeled conventionally “prim,” he was one of the few artists of the time willing to mentor female painters (most notably Elisabetta Sirani). Regardless, throughout his life Reni is said to have “cut an impressive aristocratic figure, always fashionably and expensively dressed and usually attended by servants.”

Born in Bologna in 1575, Reni began his training in the studio of Denys Calvaert. In his late teens, he entered the Carracci Academy where he continued studying until 1598 when he embarked on an independent art career. Despite his initial success, he soon realized that to expand (and solidify) his reputation he would have to study in Rome. He left for the “eternal city” in 1601, and for the next thirteen years he immersed himself in Rome’s rich artistic heritage. He returned to Bologna in 1614 and remained there for the rest of his life. His thriving Bolognese studio received commissions from all over Europe, and Ian Chilvers notes, “Rubens was the only contemporary painter who had a more glittering international clientele.”

Reni’s 1611 Slaughter of the Innocents reflects the tight brushwork, pristine finishes, and rich coloration of his early work. While in Rome, he did flirt briefly with the popular Caravaggesque style (as seen in the Crucifixion of St. Peter). However, he soon returned to his classical roots. David Steele observes that as his style continued to mature, “his colors become progressively more silvery and his brushwork more free.”

We see evidence of this tonal shift and looser brushwork in M&G’s gospel writers—particularly in the renderings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The more vibrant coloration of the St. John figure relates to his iconography. This “beloved disciple” is often dressed in red and green garments (red symbolizing his love for Christ and green representing his faith in the resurrection.) Also apparent in the upper right of John’s canvas is an eagle; this identifier symbolizes the “soaring inspiration” mirrored in the artful imagery that opens his gospel and illuminates his book of revelation. This attribute is derived from the “four living creatures” surrounding God’s throne (referenced in both Ezekiel and Revelation). Each of the gospel writers has an identifier related to these tetramorphs as they are called: Matthew’s is the angel (clearly visible in his portrait), Mark’s is the lion (in the lower right of his canvas), and Luke’s the ox (faintly visible in the upper right of his portrait).  Irenaeus of Lyon was the first to associate these mystical creatures with the four gospel writers, but it was the Church Father Jerome who assigned each their specific identifier. 

By the end of his life, Reni had become the most famous Italian painter of his day. His style is still regarded as “perfectly poised between formal precision and expressive density” (Baroque Painting, p. 82)  Although he briefly fell out of favor during the 19th century, his reputation as the “divine Guido” remains firmly intact. 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education


Published in 2019