Works of Mercy

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (Milan 1571- Port’ Ercole 1610). The Seven Works of Mercy, 1607, oil on canvass, 390 x 350 cm, Naples, Fraternity of Mercy Church.

In a busy ancient Neapolitan town, where Caravaggio fled from Rome after Ranuccio Tammasoni’s death on 29 May 1606, is perhaps the first painted representation of the seven corporal works of mercy, inspired by Matthew 25: 31-46.

From right to left we can see old Cimon, condemned to die of starvation in jail, being suckled by his daughter, who is thus both visiting the imprisoned and feeding the hungry. At the centre, a deacon with a torch is carrying what looks like a corpse, burying the dead. A nobleman that reminds us of St Martin of Tours has just torn his cloak in two to cover the bare shoulders of the lame man below to the left, thereby clothing the naked and visiting the sick. To the left there is a man wearing a shell on his hat, which clearly indicates he is on his way to St James’ shrine at Compostela. The innkeeper provides him with accommodation, sheltering the homeless. Between them another man, Samson, is drinking from the jawbone of an ass: the thirsty are being refreshed.

The nocturnal scene is partly lit by the powerful light of the torch, but chiefly by the radiance from above, the divine making its entrance through the top left corner, where the artist has depicted two angels and the Madonna with Child. The painting portrays a perfect world where relationships are marked by fellowship, sharing, charity, and compassion, but where there is also room for everything that in the harsh daily lives of human beings runs contrary to the Gospel.