In Ethiopia the natal day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, who suffered martyrdom while preaching in that region. In the time of the Emperor Zeno his Gospel, written by himself in the Hebrew language, was discovered along with the body of blessed Apostle Barnabas. — Roman Martyrology for September 21
St. Matthew often appears in Christian art among the four evangelists.
When the evangelists are represented only by symbols, especially in the earlier art, Matthew's symbol will be an angel (example). When they are presented as men with attributes, Matthew's attribute is an angel (example), often a small one standing at his left foot (example). See the page for the evangelists.
Many group portraits of the apostles give keys and a sword to Peter and Paul respectively and leave the others generally without attributes (example). When St. Matthew does have an attribute in such portraits, it may be a book and/or a sword or halberd (example). The sword is the weapon with which the Golden Legend says he was killed. The halberd seems to have no textual basis. Duchet-Suchaux (241) suggests it may be a way to distinguish him from St. Paul, or it could arise from a confusion with St. Matthias, whose axe can resemble a halberd. See the page for the apostles.
In single portraits, Matthew's most common attributes continue to be the angel and the book. Sometimes he is shown writing his Gospel (example) or reading what one imagines would be a book of scripture, as in the Rusconi statue at right. The angel is shown sometimes dictating to Matthew (example) or, in one charming case, holding the inkpot for him while he consults a large volume.
In some of the above examples the angel is represented as a boy, perhaps reflecting the 6th-century Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew the Apostle, in which Jesus appears to the evangelist "in the likeness of the infants who sing in paradise" – that is, the Holy Innocents.
A few images, such as the Rusconi statue at right, use a money-bag or money-box as an attribute, referring to the life that St. Matthew abandoned after Jesus called him.
In Matthew 9:9-13 Jesus calls Matthew to leave his life as a tax collector and be his disciple, and he then has Jesus to dinner with other "tax collectors and sinners." For a small chapel in Rome Caravaggio did a painting of this call along with one of his writing the Gospel and another of his assassination.
The assassination is in the Golden Legend's life of Matthew, which says he evangelized in Ethiopia, cured the son of King Egippus, converted Egippus and his family, and then saw to the consecration of the king's daughter Ephigenia as a virgin of God. When Egippus died and his pagan successor tried to marry Ephigenia, Matthew preached against him and for that he was assassinated while saying Mass. The sequence of events is remembered in this triptych and elsewhere.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University