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Matthew Ancell Teaches About Finding Christ in Unlikely Places

As part of an Education Week lecture series on finding Christ in the Humanities, Matthew Ancell helped his audience discover the hidden symbolism in Caravaggio's religious paintings.

Most religious artwork from 16th century Rome was reverent and included elements you’d typically expect from religious artists. There was one artist, though, who challenged the norms of religious artwork and transformed our understanding of Christian art.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (known as Caravaggio) was famous (or infamous, to some) for the contrast between his extraordinary religious artwork and his controversial lifestyle. Caravaggio used many commonplace elements—like bare feet or a rip in a robe—in the sacred events he painted. To the 16th century Catholic Church, those mundane details would have been blasphemous alongside the spiritual aspects in Caravaggio’s paintings. For us, this contrast provides an opportunity to find Christ in an unlikely place.

Professor Matthew Ancell (Comparative Arts & Letters) spoke about Caravaggio’s unique contributions to religious art in his lecture, “Caravaggio’s Art: Finding Christ in the World,” on Wednesday, August 18, at BYU Education Week 2021. The lecture showed Caravaggio’s work, while controversial in 16th century Rome, actually adds a lot of meaning to our understanding of Christ today.

Much of Caravaggio’s work uses a combination of sacred elements and coarse settings to teach us how to find Christ in our everyday lives. For example, The Calling of Saint Matthew shows Matthew gambling during his apostolic calling by the Savior. It’s such an unusual perspective on that sacred event that it forces the viewer to stop and take notice. On a deeper level, it suggests that Christ is in the everyday parts of our lives and He calls us even when we have strayed from Him.

Painting of The Conversion on the Way to Damascus Painting by Caravaggio
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Michelangelo Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s art also encourages us to recognize new perspectives and how they can change our lives. A great example of this is The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, which depicts Saul lying on the ground, arms outstretched, completely stunned. This painting shows the beginning of Saul’s conversion, where he is in the process of letting go of his previous misunderstandings and recognizing a new perspective. Like Saul, we sometimes experience events that shake us to our core and ultimately change our lives. In order to make that change, we have to recognize the value in perspectives other than our own. Sometimes we have to look for what is beyond our frame. As Ancell remarked, “Divinity is outside the frame, but it completes the picture.”

Ancell closed his remarks by saying, “[Caravaggio’s] work has inspired me to do better, to repent.” As we try to find Christ in everyday or even unlikely places, we can also repent and do better. Ancell taught us to look beyond our assumptions and find deeper meaning in our day-to-day lives.

Ancell’s lecture was the first in a three-part lecture series, Finding Christ in the Humanities, given during Education Week. The series continued with lectures from Professors Francesca Lawson (Comparative Arts & Letters) and Matthew Wickman (English).