The Church of St. Louis of the French

The Church of St. Louis of the French in Rome

San Luigi dei Francesi: admire three Caravaggio Paintings in Rome

When you walk into the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (the national church in Rome of France), located between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, you realize the reason for its fame. It’s not because of the Baroque architecture by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. It’s not for the church’s paintings by Domenichino, Guido Reni or Cavalier d’Arpino. But as the crowd clustered in front of the Contarelli Chapel tells you, it’s because of the three masterpieces by Caravaggio.

san luigi dei francesi in rome
Photo: Lucas Alexandros – Flickr

San Luigi dei Francesi: Art

From an artistic point of view, the church is a tribute to France through the representation of its saints and its greatest historical figures.  Starting from the facade, you can see the statues of Charlemagne, Saint Louis, Sainte-Clotilde and Saint Joan of Valois.

While the interior, divided into three naves with five chapels on each side and a rich central choir decorated with marble, is a real triumph of Baroque art. In the second chapel of the right aisle you’ll find Domenichino’s fresco Storie di Santa Cecilia, while on the altar there’s a copy made by Guido Reni of the Santa Cecila by Raffaello.

Finally, above the front door, there is a real gem: the very precious pipe organ built by Joseph Merklin in 1881.

contarelli chapel church san luigi dei francesi rome
photo: Steven Zucker

Caravaggio and the Contarelli Chapel

The famous Contarelli Chapel, where you’ll find Caravaggio’s triptych composed of The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, The Vocation of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel, deserves a separate chapter.

The chapel takes its name from Cardinal Mathieu Cointrel, later Italianized to Contarelli, who commissioned Michelangelo Merisi with the three altarpieces focused on the figure of San Matteo.

Caravaggio The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew - St. Louis of the French
Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

The Martyrdom of San Matteo is the first canvas created by Caravaggio for the chapel. Compared to the others, the composition is overcrowded with a tangle of bodies that refers to Mannerism while the nudes are clear Michelangelesque elements.

The Vocation of St. Matthew - St. Louis of the French
Caravaggio’s The Vocation of St. Matthew

The Vocation of St. Matthew

In the Vocation of San Matteo, the main reason is represented by the symbolism of the beam of light that comes from a hidden window. It is the light that God turns to Saint Matthew together with the figures of Jesus and Saint Peter.

Caravaggio St Matthew and the Angel - St. Louis of the French
Caravaggio’s The Vocation of St. Matthew

St. Matthew and the angel

San Matteo and the Angel was made by Caravaggio at a later date, but the first version of the painting was rejected for excessive realism. St. Matthew is represented with the appearance of an almost illiterate population, to whom the angel must direct his hand to help him write. Only photographic copies of this work, lost in Berlin during the Second World War, remain. In the second version of the painting, however, Matthew is always represented in the act of composing his Gospel with the angel who provides suggestions.

 

Are you a Caravaggio fan? Discover where to see the art of Caravaggio in Rome or book a private Caravaggio’s Masterpieces Tour

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Address

Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi

Opening hour

10am-12.30pm/3am-7pm. Closed Thursday afternoons

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