This work is one of three works by Caravaggio hanging in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of St. Louis of the French, the other two being The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. It was the first time the artist had received a commission from the Church and the first time he had created a large-scale group painting of multiple people.
The work was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus came to Matthew after his resurrection and said to him, "Follow me," and Matthew followed him. Caravaggio designed the image with a strong contrast between darkness and light, as a direct confrontation between the secular and the divine, while the gesture of Jesus is the same as the gesture of Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel zenith painting Creation of Adam, which echoes the two comparisons between Jesus and Adam in the New Testament, indicating that Jesus is "the last Adam ".
The question of who in the painting is St. Matthew is still debated, and there are different opinions about the gesture of the man with the long beard in the center of the table. Some believe that he is pointing to himself, representing "I?" His bearded figure is consistent with the images in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, so most people support this theory.
Some believe that he is pointing to the young man at the end of the table with his head bowed, meaning "He?", again in response to Christ's call, so the painting depicts the moment before St. Matthew looks up at Jesus. Neither of these claims can be confirmed so far, as no exact historical documents or references can be found to prove it.
In this painting, five tax collectors sit around a table calculating the amount of taxes, representing the pomp and circumstance of the secular world. The appearance of Jesus brings a bright light that illuminates the crowd. The light and Jesus' gestures are indicative as if to bring sublime power to a world bewitched by money.