Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Saint Matthew

General Information


Saint's Day -Sept. 21 (West) Nov. 16 (East)

Text from Sacred and Legendary Art
by Anna Jameson
Third Editon: London, 1911

ST. MATTHEW among the Apostles takes the seventh or eighth place, but as an Evangelist he always stands first, because his Gospel was the earliest written. Very little is certainly known concerning him, his name occurring but once in his own Gospel, and in the other Gospels only incidentally with reference to two events.

He was a Hebrew by birth; by profession a publican, or tax-gatherer, in the service of the Romans-an office very lucrative, but particularly odious in the sight of his countrymen. His original name was Levi .It is recorded in few words, that as he sat at the receipt of custom by the lake of Gennesareth, Jesus in passing by saw him, and said unto him, 'Follow me,' and he left all and followed Him ; and further, that he made a feast in his house, at which many publicans and sinners sat down with the Lord and his disciples, to the great astonishment and scandal of the Jews. So far the sacred record: the traditional and legendary history of St. Matthew is equally scanty. It is related in the Perfetto Legendario that, after the dispersion of the apostles, he traveled into Egypt and Ethiopia, preaching the Gospel; and having arrived in the capital of Ethiopia, he lodged in the house of the eunuch who had been baptized by Philip, and who entertained him with great honor. There were two terrible magicians at that time in Ethiopia, who by their diabolical spells and incantations kept all the people in subjection, afflicting them at the same time with strange and terrible diseases ; but St. Matthew overcame them, and having baptized the people, they were delivered for ever from the malignant influence of these enchanters. And further it is related that St. Matthew raised tile Son of the King of Egypt from the dead, and healed his daughter of the leprosy. Tile princess, whose name wits Iphigenia, he placed at the head of a community of virgins dedicated to the service of God; and a certain wicked heathen king, having threatened to tear her from her asylum, was struck by leprosy, and his palace destroyed by fire. St. Matthew remained twenty-three years in Egypt and Ethiopia, and it is said that he perished in the ninetieth year of our era, under Domitian; but the manner of his death is uncertain; according to the Greek legend, he died in peace, but according, to the tradition of the Western Church, he suffered martyrdom either by the sword or the spear.

Few churches are dedicated to St. Matthew. I am not aware that he is the patron saint of any country, trade, or profession, unless it be that of tax-gatherer or exciseman; and this is perhaps the reason that, except where he figures as one of the series of evangelists or apostles, he is so seldom represented alone, or in devotional pictures..... When he is portrayed an evangelist, he holds a book or a pen ; and the angel, his proper attendant, stands by, pointing up to heaven, or dictating; or he holds the inkhorn, or he supports the book. In his character of apostle St. Matthew frequently holds a purse or money-bag, as significant of his former vocation

Neither are pictures from his life of frequent occurrence. The principal incident, entitled the 'Calling of Matthew, has been occasionally, but not often, treated in painting The motif is simple and not easily mistaken. St. Matthew is seated at a kind of desk with money before him; various personages bring tribute; on one side is seen Christ, with one or two of His disciples, generally Peter and Andrew; St. Matthew is either looking towards Him with an expression of awestruck attention, or he is rising from his seat, as in the act to follow: the mere accessories and number of the personages vary with the period of the composition and the taste of the painter. .... In all the representations f the death of Saint Matthew, except those of the Greek or Byzantine school, he dies by the sword. The Greek artists uniformly exhibit his as dying in peace, while an angel swings the censer beside his bed; as on the ancient doors of San Paolo in Rome.

Pictures from the legendary life of St. Matthew are very rare, The most remarkable are the frescos in the chapel of San Matteo at Ravenna, attributed to Giotto, ...

Return to Images of Medieval Art and Architecture
Updated by Jane Vadnal, June, 1998