Michelangelo's "St. Matthew," of all his known sculptures, shows the extraordinary power involved in his concept of sculpture as a process of "finding." The sculptor progressively chips away whatever is extraneous in a block of stone until the figure -- almost magically contained in the stone -- appears. Cicero and Pliny related how marble blocks were split open by men working in quarries, to reveal the contours of naturally formed figures already inside.
To us, this is a fantastic belief. To Michelangelo, it seems to have been a kind of incentive to his genius: he, the inspired artist, could perceive in the marble a figure that would remain hidden until he disclosed it. In his identification of thought processes with the laborious processes of carving, he also evidently identified conception with stone. The emerging figure in the block exactly echoed the emerging figure in his mind's eye. Although it is preposterous to believe that the figure of St. Matthew was somehow buried in the stone before he began carving it, nevertheless, in what is clearly its unfinished state, the sculpture indicates a working method by the great Italian sculptor consistent with this notion.
Writing about Michelangelo, Vasari described the sculptor's procedure as similar to lifting a horizontal body out of water. It breaks the surface bit by bit. In carving "St. Matthew," Michelangelo has worked from the front, and much of the projecting figure is still "below the surface," as it were. Much of it is still little more than relief. Its incomplete state invests it with astounding tensions. Matthew seems to struggle to free himself from the stone rather in the way Michelangelo's "Captives" were to do. But he is not a captive. He seems more likely to have been conceived as an analogy for the push and pull of the artist's own sense of heroic and sublime inspiration. He seems to be both massively willful and mysteriously resigned, caught between thrusting strength and a sort of clutching restraint. The figure's muscular power and scale serve only to intensify its inexplicable frustration.
It hardly seems a coincidence that most of the work on this figure is thought to have been done in the summer of 1506, just after the artist had fled from Rome in anger over Pope Julius II's treatment of him. John Pope-Hennessy has written: "It is as though, after his rebuff in Rome, he had attacked the inert block in an effort to affirm to himself, not to the world, that he was indeed the supreme, transcendent genius he supposed." It is also to the point that, while in Rome, Michelangelo had been one of the first to see the rediscovered classical sculpture "Laocoon," with its twisted, struggling figures. Something of its challenge shows in "St. Matthew," in what Howard Hibbard has described as the figure's "triple twist that exceeds in power of torsion any of his previous works."
There is no reason to suppose this sculpture would not have been taken to a point of considerable completeness if the sculptor had not abandoned it. But Michelangelo's particular vision is nevertheless one of humanity's "becoming," rather than "being." His art explores potentiality, awakening, the momentary transitions of bodies held in a strangely languorous suspense. The "St. Matthew" is powerful because of its possibilities rather than its achievement, both as a figure sculpted and as a work of art.