Works of Mercy

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September 2016

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Brussels, 1564 – Antwerp, 1638), The works of mercy, around 1630, oil on oak wood, 41.5x56 cm, Lisbon, National Museum of Ancient Art

What strikes about this small painting by the Flemish painter is the lack of a main character.

A crowded town is represented, and everyone is apparently dealing with some business. On a first look, it could resemble one of the many similar scenes depicted in Flanders in the first half of the 17th century.

But if we carefully look at the characters and at the different groups of people in the painting, we realise that all the seven corporal works of mercy are represented.

So, not only a single person, but the whole village is engaged in applying what Jesus asked: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoners, bury the dead.

In this way, the works of mercy are part of daily life. As a matter of fact, what is represented is not something exemplary or unique, but the very same scene could have been observed by Brueghel’s contemporaries in many parts of 17th century Flanders. There are so many tiny details that make the subject concrete and specific: the houses rooftops, the patches on the shabby clothes of many people, the rosary hanging from the belt of the man dressed in black in the foreground…

What is also surprising is that there are no rich people in this scene. There are many poor and sick, but the other people engaged in helping them are humble people themselves, apart from someone that could belong to the petty bourgeoisie at the most. We are looking at poor people helping out poor people, sharing the little they have with those who have even less.

Let’s think about those who are poorer than us today: am I able to share the little or much I have? Am I able to provide them with the help they need?