This evening, while uploading photographs onto the Mermaid Avenue Gallery, I came across a copy of this painting stored on my computer. I found it tucked away in a file, between a photograph taken in New Orleans last Halloween, and a shot of Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson in Kingpin. I must have downloaded and saved it sometime in the past, but cannot remember when. The original, executed by Caravaggio in 1599, hangs in the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. I had an opportunity to see it when traveling through Europe, just before starting medical school. It depicts a dramatic and pivotal moment in the life of a man named Levi, when called upon to perform a larger task. I purchased a postcard copy of the painting, along with many others that I encountered during my trip.
Unlike the handful of others that I brought home, I framed this one.
Then, I placed it on the table at my bedside. Although rarely noticed, it has remained there since, through four years of medical school and now through most of residency.
On mornings when I do not feel particularly up for another day in the hospital, I may notice the copy beside my bed. I placed it there, hoping it would keep me motivated, which on occasion has proven to be the case. Most certainly, I do not aspire to lead folks to eternal salvation as a disciple of Christ. Admittedly, I would be thoroughly dubious as a sainthood candidate. Still, the image holds something for me, as like anyone else there are mornings when I would rather just stay in bed. There are also days when, because of my chosen profession, I come home from a thirty-hour shift, without having rested my head upon a pillow, much less slept. Those are the days when any source of motivation is appreciated, even from a postcard on a table.
When I first saw the original painting, I knew little of the background story. Nonetheless, the scene impressed me. To my nescient eye, the people at the table were in the middle of a poker game and not having too bad a time. Looking at it again now, I see there are no cards present on the table or in the hands of the would-be players. It also appeared to me, back then, that the person called upon is the young man with brown hair, hunched over, gaze still down upon his poker winnings. Although he has not yet looked up, something in his posture suggests that he knows the commanding figure beneath the window is gesturing for him. Yet, he hesitates to accept that his time has come; he must leave the party and go to work. Regarding the older, balding man nearby, who points at himself to ask if he might be the one they are looking for: it appeared he was some has-been just aching for another shot at the big-time. Like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, he coulda had class. He coulda been a contender.
I now know that I had the story all wrong. The old guy drawing attention to himself is the real Levi, soon to become a saint, while the young guy is simply trying to ignore the men beneath the window. Although the figure of this young man derives from an earlier print (Hans Holbein, 1545) depicting a gambler, this is not a poker game. These guys are not even sitting around the table having a good time. As the actual story goes, they are tax collectors counting out the day’s returns. The two men looking down are supposedly going to be condemned to hellfire and damnation for failing to notice that the Son of God has interrupted their bean-counting. They are in the process of blowing their shot at eternity, which is going to feel worse than a losing weekend in Vegas. In all honesty, I prefer my earlier read on the painting, loose misinterpretation it may have been.