The Seven Works of Mercy
Oil on canvas
390 × 260 cm
Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia
The Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1671-1610; known as Caravaggio) is considered as a hallmark of Baroque painting, due to his revolutionary technique of tenebrism, or dramatic, selective illumination of form our of deep shadow. He used to take his model from the streets and painted them realistically, despising the traditional idealized interpretation of religious subjects. His three painting of Saint Matthew accomplished between 1599 and 1602 -Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel (and its corrected version: The Inspiration of Saint Matthew)- cause a sensation and were followed by his latter works, among them the Supper at Emmaus (1601-1602).
Caravaggio was active in Rome between 1593 and 1606; afterwards he went to Naples, Malta and Sicily, continuing his artistic activities there until his death in 1610. He was considered in his own life enigmatic, fascinating, rebellious and dangerous. It is well known that he was notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behavior was commonplace. In 1606, he killed young man, possibly unintentionally, so he fled from Rome to Naples. There, outside the jurisdiction of the Roman authorities, he was protected by the Colonna family. His connections with the Colonnas led to a series of important church commissions, including the Madonna of the Rosary (c. 1607), and The Seven Works of Mercy (c. 1607).
In Naples, early in January of 1607, Caravaggio was paid for the immense altarpiece (an oil painting) commissioned to him by the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia (where it may still be seen today). The painting shows the iconography of the seven corporal works of mercy, with a complicated visual organization.
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we help our neighbor in his spiritual and corporal needs [Is 58: 6-7; Heb 13: 3]. The spiritual works of mercy include: instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor. [Catechism of Catholic Church, nn. 2447-2448]
Caravaggio added a series of figures (two angels, together with Our Lady and Child) in the upper part of the painting, which make the composition of the picture the most complex, perhaps, in any of his works. The painter did not paint exemplary episodes intended to stir the viewer to religious piety through the illustrative emphasis of gestures and feelings. Rather, he entrusted the educational effectiveness of his works to the evidence of things in themselves, in the conviction that nothing should be added above and beyond what is already contained in the intrinsic eloquence of the various poses. In order to stress the realistic character, Caravaggio placed the scene in the Neapolitan street, using the light to draw the attention over the seven acts of mercy.
The seven works of mercy represented on Caravaggio's painting are the following:
- On the right appear: (1) the burial of the dead, and the episode of the so-called Carità Romana (Roman Charity, Pero giving her father Cimon suck in prison), containing at once the two charitable acts of (2) visiting prisoners and (3) feeding the hungry.
- In the foreground: St. Martin of Tours and the beggar, symbolizing (4) dressing the naked. Next to the scene, the host and St. James of Compostela allude to the (5) offering of hospitality of pilgrims. Samson drinking from the ox jaw represents (6) relieving the thirsty. The youth on the ground behind the beggar of St. Martin may also represent the merciful gesture of (7) caring for the sick.
- As for the figures of two angels, in the upper part of the painting, they are embracing one another, hover down form heaven on powerful wings. They offer Our Lady and her child Jesus protection, without carrying them, so that Christ-child can observe the night's activities on earth along with his mother.
Here we see Caravaggio's capacity of synthesis -which concentrates a conceptual content that is somehow dispersive- in the model behavior of a few figures.