Caravaggio was on the run from the Papal State after being convicted of a murder committed in Rome. In the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, he found those who protected him and those who commissioned new works, among these Giovan Battista Manso, one of the seven founders of Pio Monte della Misericordia and a fine connoisseur of the art world of his time.
The “ Seven Works of Mercy ” is the first painting created for the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, costing at the time the exorbitant sum of 400 ducats.
The enigmatic painting, amongst the most important of the turbulent painter, depicts with great realism, in an intertwining of figures taken from the streets of Naples, the charitable activities of the organization, inspired by the seven Corporal Works of Mercy.
In a revolutionary composition, the Madonna of Mercy with Child is depicted above, sustained by angels, while below, the interlocking figures, with their intricate gestures, symbolically allude to the seven works of mercy. In the scene, which seems to take place in a dark Neapolitan crossroads, we can recognize, on the right, Cimone in prison being breastfed by his daughter Pero (symbolizing feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoners). Behind the prison wall an undertaker advances carrying a corpse, of which only the feet can be seen, followed by a priest with a torch (burying the dead). On the left, in the foreground, a knight with a feather (St. Martin) shares his cloak with a poor man, depicted from behind, and next to him a sick man is with clasped hands (dressing the naked and visiting the sick). Further back, a man with an emaciated face with a shell on his hat (St. James), is welcomed by the man in front (hosting pilgrims). To the far left in the background is Samson drinking from the jaw of a donkey (giving drink to the thirsty).
The work expresses, through a strong contrast of light, a direct vision of reality, becoming a point of reference for local painters, linked to a devout and late-manneristic style, thereby inspiring the new seventeenth-century school of naturalism painting in Naples.
Here is a painting that evokes, grounded as it is in a reality of charitable works, a feeling of understanding and compassion, involving the viewer in the suffering of others, in a totality of love and pain. Here is a testimony to the extraordinary “manifesto” of the beneficial and charitable activities of Pio Monte della Misericordia.