Caravaggio arrived to Naples on October 6, 1606. In flight from Rome after murdering Ranuccio Tommasino in a dispute over a sporting match, the master took refuge in the environs of Naples under the protection of the powerful Colonna family. He immediately received prestigious commissions for paintings, including from the new confraternity of Pio Monte della Misericordia on January 9th, 1607.
The church of Pio Monte della Misericordia was a charitable institution newly founded in 1601. Governed by the young generation of Neapolitan nobility, their mission was to administer the seven works of corporal mercy to the poor as described in Matthew 25. In 1604, construction began on the confraternity’s church, and Caravaggio’s revolutionary style was an ideal fit for expressing the governors’ ambitions. The Confraternity continues to carry out its mission to this day.
The seven works of corporal mercy according to Catholic tradition address the physical needs of the poor. These include feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, giving shelter to travelers, and offering drink to the thirsty. Caravaggio compresses all seven acts into one composition. This Google Arts & Culture story will explain the rich iconography of this singular masterpiece.
Feed the Hungry and Visit the Imprisoned:Caravaggio incorporates these two acts in this striking detail. Pero, a figure from Roman antiquity representing Charity, visits her imprisoned father and feeds him from her breast.
Bury the Dead:Glancing to our left, we encounter the visual mandate to Bury the Dead. Enrobed in his white tunic, a priest holding a torch looks down as two men carry a dead body.
The dead body is indicated by the feet vanishing behind the adjacent wall.
Clothe the Naked and Care for the Sick: Proceeding further left, we see a handsomely dressed men wearing a feathered cap. This is St. Martin, who has cut his cloak in two in order to clothe the naked and invalid man lying on the ground.
If you look closely, you will see the glint of St. Martin’s sword just above the beggar’s shoulder.
Near St. Martin are two men engaged in dialogue.
The innkeeper points with his left hand towards the inn.
The pilgrim across from him, denoted by the shell on his hat and walking stick in hand, appears to nod in acknowledgment.
Offer Drink to the Thirsty:Caravaggio illustrates the act of giving drink to the thirsty by alluding to the Old Testament hero Samson.
Exhausted from battle, God gave Samson water to drink from the jawbone of an ass. Notice how Caravaggio captures the effect of flowing water with soft touches of white paint.
Presiding above the scene is the Madonna and Child atop two winged angels.
Mary approvingly observes the merciful acts performed below.
Illumined by divine grace, Jesus’ smile reflects his mutual satisfaction, which will come to completion with his future sacrifice on the cross.
The angels embrace one another as their wings spread to keep them suspended in effortless flight.
With a gesture that unifies the upper and lower registers of the picture, the angel to our left extends his right arm down towards the figures below, imparting the grace of divine light that inspires them to perform acts of mercy.
Caravaggio articulates the feathery wings of the angels with naturalistic detail.