Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
The Seven Works of Mercy
Oil on canvas, 1607
390 cm × 260 cm (150 in × 100 in)
Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples, Italy
The Seven Acts of Mercy is an oil painting by Italian painter Caravaggio, circa 1607. It is housed in the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.
From the fiefs of the Colonna family Caravaggio took refuge in Naples in 1606. There he began to work again with his usual, astounding speed. Early in January of the following year he was paid for the immense altarpiece commissioned to him by the Pio Monte di Misericordia ( it may still be seen today).
The painting is very complicated in its organization. Caravaggio actually had to add a series of figures (two angels and the Madonna and Child, the latter painted later) in the upper part of the painting, which makes the composition of the picture the most complex, perhaps, in any of his works. Caravaggio 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 add realism, Caravaggio also had the spectacular intuition to place the scene in the Neapolitan street, using the light to draw the attention over the devotion episodes.
The seven acts represented on the painting are the following Corporal Works of Mercy traditionally recognized by the Roman Catholic church, as follows:
On the right appear: the burial of the dead and the episode of the so-called Carità Romana (Cimon's daughter breastfeeding her father, who was sentenced to life in prison), containing at once the two charitable acts of visiting prisoners and feeding the hungry.
Appearing in the foreground are St. Martin and the beggar, symbolizing dressing the naked. Next to this scene, the host and St. James of Compostela allude to the offering of hospitality to pilgrims. Samson drinking from the ox jaw represents relieving the thirsty. The youth on the ground behind the beggar of St. Martin may also represent the merciful gesture of caring for the sick.
John T. Spike notes that the angel at the center of Caravaggio’s altarpiece transmits the grace that inspires humanity to be merciful. Spike also notes that the choice of Samson as an emblem of Giving Drink to the Thirsty is so peculiar as to demand some explanation. The fearsome scourge of the Philistines was a deeply flawed man who accomplished his heroic tasks through the grace of God. When Samson was in danger of dying of thrist, God gave him water to drink from the jawbone of an ass. It is difficult to square this miracle with an allegory of the Seven Acts of Mercy since it was not in fact the work of human charity.
We readily apprehend the artist's power of synthesis, which concentrates a conceptual content that is potentially quite dispersive, in the model behavior of a few figures. The large painting was widely copied and studied by 17th century Neapolitan painters, who drew ideas and formal devices from it.