Works of Mercy
Benedetto Antelami (Val d’Intelvi, c. 1150 – c. 1230), The works of mercy, between 1196 and 1216, marble, Baptistery of Parma (left-hand jamb of the west portal)
The representation of the works of mercy by Benedetto Antelami is a very peculiar one. He carved them in a sequence of six panels placed one above the other in the left-hand jamb of the main portal, the west-facing one, of the Baptistery of Parma. The order in which they are represented, starting from the bottom, is not exactly the one described in Matthew 25:35-36, but we have them all: shelter the homeless, visit the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked (bury the dead, the seventh work of mercy, is in fact a late Middle Age addition to the Gospel parable).
In addition to observing the simplicity with which the individual scenes are represented, we can notice that the character performing the works of mercy is always the same person, as if to emphasise that the Christian, in order to have part in the Kingdom of God, is invited to show mercy towards his neighbour in all the forms in which it can be expressed.
We said that this jamb can be found in the west portal of the Baptistery, that is the main one: therefore, also the octagonal building is "oriented", as evidenced by the absence of the portal in the east side and the fact that inside there’s the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated. The west portal is also called "the Redeemer portal", because Jesus is represented in the lunette, frontally seated on a throne, while showing us his wounded hands and flanked by angels handing the instruments of the Passion: the crown of thorns, the cross, the sponge, the spear. This Jesus is the one who will judge humanity: under the lunette, there is indeed a lintel on which the dead are represented; to the sound of trumpets by two angels, they are arising from their graves and going towards their judgement.
Let’s finally talk about the two jambs: the one on the left, that we have already examined, features the works of mercy, while on the one on the right the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, applied to the stages of life and not to the hours of the day, is represented (cf. Mt 20:1-16).
We invite you to take vision of the whole sculptural decoration and to think about the lesson that this portal intends to convey: the Lord Jesus, showing us the signs of His love “to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), calls every Christian - at any stage of their life - and invites them to perform the works of mercy. That’s because He is not a terrible God, but he is the one who says: "Come, ye blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world" (Mt 25:34).