“The Seven Acts of Mercy”, Caravaggio, 1606/07, Chiesa Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples. Shortly after his arrival in Naples Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a Madonna of Mercy for the newly built Church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Mary had long been titled “Mother of Mercy’ and a whole genre developed in art, where she is depicted with a wide cloak extending protection to those beneath. However, here the cloak has become a winding length of cloth picked out for us by the light on the top left. It is like a sheet hung out to dry high above the street but now caught in a sudden gust of wind, blowing this way and that, evoking the Holy Spirit, who Christ said “blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8) The cloth is in harmony with the wings of the angels who support the Madonna and child but seem to rotate with it, giving visual expression to the dynamism of the Spirit descending into the darkness upon our world. But these figures are as real as those below, all lit by the same light and casting real shadows. One angel extends a hand towards four men and a woman engaged in the seven acts of mercy for which the painting would be named. The final judgement scene in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 35-36) gives a list. In time, burying the dead and the release of captives were added. What is very unusual is to show these merciful deeds happening together. On the far left an inn keeper gives two pilgrims (one is almost unseen) lodging for the night. Behind him Samson drinks water from the jaw bone of an ass, as once God quenched his thirst in the desert. The deeds of Samson were a popular theme at that time in Naples. In front of the two pilgrims a young well-dressed man divides his cloak in two and gives half to an almost naked man at his feet. He is a latter day St Martin who did the same and then was told in a dream that the poor man was Christ. Behind the almost naked man, and barely visible, another figure kneels with an anguished expression as if afflicted with some terrible illness. The young man attends to both. In the backgrounding one man is carrying out a corpse for burial. We see the feet and the shroud. The figure with the torch is a cleric who appears to be singing, suggesting that dead individual will receivie a christian burial. Finally, an old man puts his head through the bars of a prison window to suckle on the breast of a woman. There is drop of her milk on his beard. She raises here skirt to wipe his beard. This recalls a story from classical Rome where a young woman visits her imprisoned father and feeds him from her breast. Heavenly light descends into a darkened streets of Naples, picking out five individuals caught up in acts of mercy. The angels, the naked back, and the woman offering her breast, are the bright points of a triangle, through which the of fabric of human living is woven, connecting each deed with the billowing sheet above. These are ordinary folk. This is Naples as it was, under Spanish rule: an overcrowded city with massive poverty, where people died on the streets and prisons were terrifying. But Caravaggio, in line with his patrons’ wishes, shows a different Naples. It is one where mercy holds sway, and where good deeds shine in the sight of men and praise is due to the Father in heaven.
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