Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy

Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy is an oil painting that was completed in 1607. The work shows a set of compassionate acts that humans can perform for one another. These works were central to the mission statement of the confraternity the work was commissioned for.

Caravaggio's Seven Works of Mercy

Who is Caravaggio?

Michelangelo da Merisi, has always been referred to as Caravaggio, the town he was from.

Caravaggio was by all accounts an angry, temperamental man, who was in constant trouble. In and out of jail, continually fighting, and questionable decisions left him with a reputation and quite a few legal complaints. His powerful patrons were able to protect him from the consequences of his actions, until Ranuccio Tommasoni.

While Caravaggio and Tommasoni had a history of disagreements, on May 29th, 1606, the quarreling turned deadly. Some say it was over a woman, others a sporting match. Whatever happened this incident couldn’t be glossed over. The victim was purportedly a gangster from a powerful, family who demanded justice. Caravaggio was convicted and sentenced to beheading; an open bounty placed on his head.

Caravaggio fled to Naples, outside the jurisdiction of Rome. Once there he placed himself under the protection of another powerful family, the Colonna’s. It was during this period that Caravaggio painted the work we will be looking at today.

As we’ve noted, Caravaggio’s life bounced between the sacred and the profane, and while his temperament reflected the volatile, violent times that he lived in, his religious art was insightful and psychologically aware. After the beauty of the Renaissance and the elegance of the Mannerists, Caravaggio’s work was forceful, technically powerful, and strikingly realistic.  Filled with emotion, excitement, and contrasts Caravaggio struck a nerve in the Italy of the 1600’s. People couldn’t get enough. When word got out that one of his paintings would be going up, the rush of people to view the work created an excitement similar to a rock star coming to town. This is why a criminal on the run, immediately had work, and an eager audience.

Who commissioned Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy?

Caravaggio was also the most famous painter in Rome, and when word spread that he was in Naples he quickly had commissions. The first painting he was commissioned for was, The Seven Works of Mercy. This painting was for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a confraternity (or charitable organization) that was founded by 7 young, Neapolitan noblemen to care for the poor and is still in operation today.

The confraternity had built a church and hired Caravaggio to paint The Seven Works of Mercy, in essence, these were their mission statement. Generally, this topic was done in seven different paintings, and in fact, the church was built in a circular shape and had seven areas, each built to house a painting for one of the seven mercies. Instead, however, Caravaggio chose to include all of the mercies in one work, a monumental task.

What are the Seven Mercies, or Acts of Human Kindness?

The works of Mercy are based on verses from the gospel of Matthew which reads, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-26).

So, the first six acts are feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. Medieval theologians added a seventh, burying the dead. Believing the body to be made in the image of God, and since the body serves during life as the temple of the Holy Spirit, it was important that the rites for end of life be treated as sacred, and that even the least among us be given a proper burial.

Important Details of Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy 

Baroque artists were known for their use of “chiaroscuro,” or the dramatic use of light, and Caravaggio took this to a whole new level. He was a master of using light and dark to create contrast and drama, and we can see that in this work. Some believe that Caravaggio used the darkness and black backgrounds in his paintings to reflect his own doubts and the darkness in himself. His paintings were often predominately dark, and then he added splashes of light to draw the eye to the important details.

In this painting the light could even be a metaphor for mercy, as the acts themselves seem to illuminate the darkness. Naples is a brighter place because of the acts of mercy being performed here.

The work is divided in half, the top half is the celestial, or heavenly portion of the painting with angels, and the Virgin Mary and Christ observing what is happening below. The lower half of the painting is in the terrestrial, or earthly realm. The Seven Works of Mercy is also referred to as the Seven Acts of Human Kindness. These are acts that we, as humans, do for one another as a response to receiving God’s love.

Detail from Caravaggio's Seven Works of MercyAngels, Mary, and Christ in Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy

The top half of the Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy consists of four figures tumbling through the air. There are two angels, their wings forming an enclosure that protects and lowers a woman and child toward the scene below. All four figures are gazing down, intent on the humans’ actions. The woman is the Virgin Mary, and the child is Christ. They are looking with love and approval on the kindnesses being performed. The one angel’s hand is stretched out toward the lower figures, a slash of light through darkness serving to connect the two halves of the painting. His hand is in the familiar open pose, that is associated with giving a blessing.

John Spike, an American Art historian, has said that “the angel is granting grace to those below, and that grace inspires the merciful acts.”

Mary has many titles and one of them is the ‘Mother of Mercy.’  This title, and idea of Mary inspired many artists to try to capture this aspect of her character. Sometimes her cloak is pictured billowing out and extending protection to those within its folds. I have lightened the top section of the painting to see if I could find Mary’s cloak. It appears that the cloak encircles the upper figures within it, adding Mary’s protection to the little group. We see that her cloak is forming a sling that seems to be cradling the angel on the right, and a portion of it falls down below the outstretched hand.

If we follow the idea that the angel, through his arm, is transmitting a blessing of grace to humanity, represented by the figures below, it follows that Mary’s cloak is serving a similar purpose, transmitting her mercy, and allowing that mercy to connect the upper and lower sections of the painting.

Another section of her cloak is visible in the top left. Here we are seeing the lining of the cloak as a swath of white fabric swirling in the air. It has been suggested that this ‘ghostly’ looking section of cloak denotes the Holy Spirit, who inspires the acts of mercy that are being performed below.

And so, the top of the painting is the source of the acts of human kindness below.

Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy

Burying the Dead, the Legend of Tobit
detail from Caravaggio's Seven Works of Human Kindness

Near the center of the painting, we see a man holding a light. He is dressed in white and wearing a black hat, he is a priest. In front of him is a man in a dark colored shirt who is obviously holding something heavy. If we look lower, we will see feet, indicating a dead body. This man is a grave digger, and he and the priest are performing one of the seven acts of kindness, burying the dead.

Unlike the other Acts of Human Mercy, burying the dead is not mentioned in Matthew and was added later. Instead, the source for this “Act” is the book of Tobit. Tobit is a book that is included in the canon of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The book tells the story of Tobit, a devout Jew living in exile in Nineveh under the reign of Sargon II. One of the pious acts Tobit is especially known for is burying Israelites that Sennacherib, (Sargon’s successor) has slain.

Leaving the dead unburied was a way to show disrespect and condemnation. Tobit’s burying the dead was an act of defiance and had the king seizing his property and exiling him from Nineveh. According to the Book of Tobit burying the dead is an important work of charity.

Detail from Caravaggio's Seven Works of MercyClothing the Naked, the Legend of Saint Martin in Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy

In Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, one of the more noticeable figures is the nearly naked man on the ground in the forefront of the painting. Above him is what appears to be a young nobleman with a feathered cap. The young man is St. Martin who has just cut his cloak in two so that he can share it with the man on the ground. We can see his sword as a slash of white above the beggar’s shoulder. He’s just used the sword to slice the fabric.

The legend of St. Martin is based on the story of a Roman soldier stationed in Gaul. As he was approaching the city gates, he saw a beggar and his heart was moved by the man. Impulsively, he removed his military cloak, drew his sword and cut the cloak in two. He then wrapped the man in the warm fabric and went on his way. That night Martin had a dream. In the dream he saw Jesus wearing his cloak and telling the angels about the man who had shared it with him. The story is a re-enactment of the verse in Mathew, that when we saw Christ naked, we clothed him.

Confraternities, like the one that commissioned this work, believed that in caring for the poor they were caring for Christ himself. Some even believed that Christ might disguise himself as a beggar or pilgrim, and that we, unaware, actually feed and clothe Jesus or an angel.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Some versions of the story of St. Martin go on to state that when Martin awoke after seeing his vision, he saw that his cloak had been made whole. Eventually the supposed cloak of St. Martin would become a holy relic.

Sheltering the Pilgrim, The Legend of Saint James

To the left of Saint Martin, we find a bearded man with a scallop shell on his hat. I’ve been looking for a better image of the shell, but I haven’t found one.

The scallop shell as a mark of the pilgrim is connected to the story of Saint James the Great, Christ’s disciple. The tradition goes, that after Christ ascended back to heaven, James set out for Hispania to spread the gospel and had many converts. After two years he returned to Jerusalem, where King Herod Agrippa ordered him to be beheaded, and so the saint was martyred in 44 CE in Jerusalem.

The King refused to allow burial of the body as a final insult, and so, a couple disciples from Hispania (what would be Spain) recovered the body and took it back to Spain where he was buried, and a mausoleum built.

On the return boat trip, a horse and rider fell from the boat into the sea. Instead of drowning they were miraculously saved and came up out of the water covered in scallop shells.  Scallop shells are found along the coast where St. James mausoleum was erected.

Over time, Muslims took control of Spain, and the site was lost. In the 9th century, a miracle occurred, and the mausoleum was rediscovered and when Christians managed to regain control of Spain, they declared Saint James their patron saint. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was built at the burial site.

Priests often gave a pilgrimage as a penance for sins, and the pilgrim was required to return with an item that proved that they had arrived at the pilgrimage site before forgiveness was granted.  Over time, the scallop shell became the token that pilgrims journeying to Santiago would take back home.

Locals quickly realized that they could monetize the scallop shells and began collecting them and selling them at the Cathedral so that pilgrims didn’t have to continue their journey to the seaside. Eventually, the scallop shell became the symbol for all pilgrims. The lines of the shell were said to represent the many paths a pilgrim could take to get to God.

Today Scallop shells are mile markers showing travelers they are on the right path to the Cathedral.  Additionally, scallop shells are often found on baptismal fonts, and to scoop the water over the head of the person being baptized. This is to mark the beginning of the individual’s pilgrimage through this life toward heaven.

The man, directly in front of the pilgrim, is an innkeeper who is indicating with his finger pointing out of the canvas, that he has room and will shelter the pilgrim.

Giving Drink, SamsonDetail from Caravaggio's Seven Works of Mercy

In between the pilgrim and the innkeeper, we see a wild, bearded man drinking from a bone, the water splashing onto his face. This is Samson, famous for trusting Delilah with the secret that his great strength was due to his uncut hair. However, this image of Samson references a different story.

Samson was fighting the Philistines in Judges 15, and grabbing the jawbone of a donkey, slew a thousand men. After this he cast the jawbone aside and was exceedingly thirsty. (You think?) He cried out to the Lord in his thirst, and God opened up the jawbone and water came out of it. Samson drank and was revived. (See below for an expansion on this.)

Besides water coming from a donkey’s jawbone, the inclusion of this story has confused many trying to interpret this painting. In Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, he was supposed to be painting seven mercies, or kindnesses performed by humans. In Samson’s case, God is the one who performed the kindness and provided drink.

Caring for the Sick

The next portion of Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, that we are going to examine is the hardest to see. This is likely due to the darkening of the canvass over time. If you look down the arm of the beggar in the front of the painting, next to his arm you will see a foot. I have lightened this section of the work, so that you can see another man is lying in this section. This is the sick man, perhaps crippled given the angle of his foot. His face is just below St. Martin’s sword.

Here we have the pilgrim, playing a double role. Standing over the sick man, we can see the pilgrim has been painted as Christ and Jesus is healing the crippled man.

Detail from Caravaggio's Seven Works of MercyVisiting the Prisoner and Feeding the Hungry, The Legend of Pero

Our next two acts of mercy are combined into one image, the woman breastfeeding the man who is imprisoned. While we might find this strange and disturbing, the story was a familiar one, and one that appeared in art from time to time.

While this is a striking image no matter the era, we need to realize that breastfeeding was viewed differently during these times than it is by many people today. Nursing was the only way to feed an infant, there were no stores full of formula, and a variety of bottles to choose from. Mother’s nursed, and if for some reason they couldn’t other women in the village would have to be called in to help. We have paintings of the Madonna nursing Christ, which gives an indication of just how normal, and non-sexual an activity breastfeeding was.

However, Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy portrayal of nursing an elderly man was still shocking, but perhaps not as laden with sexual imagery as our modern eye would give it.

This image is based on a story from Ancient Rome recorded in the Nine books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans. The story was one of the great acts of filial piety and earned Pero, the woman great honor. As the story goes, Cimon, the father was incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. Every day, when his daughter would come to visit him, she would secretly nurse him to keep him alive.

And so, in the image Pero both visits the prisoner and feeds the hungry.

Concluding Thoughts

Caravaggio was not known for either his kindness or mercy, and yet he has produced this tender work promoting these virtues.

As the year 2020 has drawn to a close I can’t help but consider the amazing acts of mercy we have witnessed from around the world as the COVID pandemic spread. It’s been a hard year, but as Mr. Rogers taught us, ‘Look for the helpers’. and throughout the pandemic there have been tens of thousands, selflessly caring for the sick.

So, let’s head into this new year thinking about how we can incorporate the 7 works of mercy into our year so that 2021 can be a better one.

More on Samson and the Jawbone

The story of Samson slaying a 1,000 Philistines with the Jawbone of a donkey appears in the book of Judges. The verse in question is Judges 15:19. It reads like this in the King James Version (translated from the Greek in to English in 1611, at about the same time as this painting was completed. It is safe to say that this was the interpretation that was in vogue in the 1600’s:

Judges 15:19 But God clave an hollow place that was in the jaw, and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived: wherefore he called the name thereof Enhakkore, which is in Lehi unto this day. (King James Version, 1611).

The key word in the translation is the word “jaw” in the first phrase of the verse.

In modern translations the word is not translated “jaw” rather it is translated “Lehi” which is a place name. This word is also present in the end of the KJV translation at the end of the verse. So, the New American Standard Version reads as follows:

Judges 15:19 But God split the hollow place that is in Lehi so that water came out of it. When he drank, his strength returned and he revived. Therefore, he named it En-hakkore, which is in Lehi to this day. (Jdg. 15:19 New American Standard Version, 1995)

Translating ancient languages is not always straightforward. In this instance, the word “lahy” in Hebrew means chin, cheek, or jawbone. It was also used to name a place, Lehi. So, an argument could be made for either translation. The point for us with regard to this painting is that Caravaggio would have most likely been exposed to translations that used the term “jaw” or “jawbone” to translate the term in the first usage, and the place name in the second. Caravaggio and most people in his day would have seen this as God supplying water directly from the jawbone, modern readers would have been exposed to alternative translations, hence the modern arguments and confusion surrounding paintings depicting the water coming from the jawbone.

Subscribe to KellyBagdanov

Join a generous group of people who help me continue to serve teachers and lovers of art. Click the button below and become a patron!

Top Posts

Affiliate Disclosure

Disclosure: Some of the links on this site are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Download Your Free Curriculum

The Grand Tour Art History Curriculum

Compare 4 works of art from the Italian Renaissance with 4 works from the Byzantine era to begin building the framework we will build on in future lessons. This download will introduce you to the overview portion of the Grand Tour Art History Curriculum and will add your email to our subscription list.

More Articles

Van Eyck’s Annunciation, The Hidden Meanings.

Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation, is a work that shimmers with a luminous clarity, infusing spiritual meaning into every small detail. Van Eyck is true to the Flemish tradition of hiding symbols in the everyday and using complicated iconography. In particular, Van Eyck explores the connections between the Old and New Testament of the Bible, the

Read More »
Isenheim Altarpiece

Isenheim Altarpiece – The Crucifixion

Crucifixion Panel of the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald which was created between 1510 and 1516. Sister Wendy had this to say about the Crucifixion Panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece “In this noble veracity, Gothic art reached an electrifying greatness.”   Grunewald and Gothic Art Matthias Grünewald, a German Gothic painter, lived during the time

Read More »

The Nativity at Night

The Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, painted in 1490, was a devotional tool. Encouraging believers to contemplate the nativity was thought to bring the believer into greater communion with God. Specifically, contemplating Christ birth was meant to facilitate the viewer in bringing forth their own spiritual rebirth. Geertgen was an Early Netherlandish

Read More »