Fan Favorite Art Fact File: Caravaggio and The Seven Works of Mercy

baroqueart recently reached out to us with an image of Caravaggio’s compelling composition, The Seven Works of Mercy, so we are featuring a discussion of this work in this, our first “Fan Favorite Art Fact File.” Thanks for the suggestion! 

The Seven Acts of Mercy, undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and innovative of Caravaggio’s altarpieces, was commissioned in 1607 by the congregational fraternity of the Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. Caravaggio was tasked here to conjure a high altarpiece that reflected the congregation’s dual devotions to both the Madonna of Mercy and to charitable community acts. 

Instead of including portraits of fraternity members in the act of various charities, however, Caravaggio instead sets his stage as a dimly-lit city street, over which presides the Madonna and Child encircled by angels. In the earthly realm below, Caravaggio casts a dynamic range of figures to symbolize the seven central acts of mercy. Beginning at lower left, one finds the act of “Clothing the Naked,” in a well-dressed young man, who offers his torn robe to an undressed male figure whose back is illuminated for the viewer. The young man’s sword, which is unsheathed and glistens as it extends across the lower left corner of the painting, draws one’s eye to the act of “Visiting the Sick,” as just behind this blade appears (almost imperceptibly) a crippled figure on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer. 

This dapper young man also serves to draw the viewer into another cluster of gentlemen near the midline of the painting. At the center of this grouping is a pilgrim, whom one can identify by the shell attached to his hat. He is seeking lodging, and, symbolizing the act of “Sheltering the Homeless,” the inn-keeper, who stands at the left-most edge of the composition, is accommodating him (as indicated with his hand gesturing out of the painting). Next to this pilgrim one finds a rendition of the Biblical figure of Samson guzzling water, the act of “Refreshing the Thirsty.” 

Across the composition, one can locate the final three merciful acts. Near the center of the painting we can see a man carrying a corpse out of the composition as a deacon, dressed in a white cassock, sings a funeral oration, an allusion to the act of “Burying the Dead.” Just in front of these figures, a busty woman is nursing an elderly gentleman between the bars of a prison cell, conflating the final two acts of “Visiting the Imprisoned” and “Feeding the Hungry.” 

That Caravaggio stages this image as if it is taking place in a rugged Neapolitan street speaks to both his ongoing desire for unyielding naturalism in representation and also his aim to transcend the state of Counter Reformation art to engage more directly with a universal concept. As John Spike has commented in regard to this painting:  

“The Seven Acts of Mercy is dedicated to the unmediated acts of charity that illuminate our dark existences, however fleetingly. A crowded alley in Naples serves as the agitated setting for episodes lifted from antiquity, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Middle Ages, and the the artist’s own day. There was no better way to show the timelessness of the idea.” (Caravaggio, p. 190).  

Curious about an artist, specific work, or theme you haven’t seen on IASblog? Send us a question! Staff writers will do their best to point you to past posts or write a new one for our queue. 

Further Reading:  Spike, John T., Caravaggio (New York: Abbeville Press, 2001). 

Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy (Sette opera di Misericordia), ca. 1607. Oil on canvas. 390 by 260 cm. Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples. 

Posted by Alexis Culotta

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