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Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy

The most unforgettable painting in Naples, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy—in Italian, the Sette Opere della Misericordia—takes pride of place in the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, as well as in nearly all of southern Italy, for emotional spectacle and unflinching truthfulness.

Painted in 1607, it combines the traditional seven acts of Christian charity in sometimes-abbreviated form in a tight, dynamic composition under the close, compassionate gaze of the Virgin (the original title was Our Lady of Mercy).

Borne by two of the most memorable angels ever painted, she flutters down with the Christ child into a torch-lighted street scene.

Illuminated in the artist's landmark chiaroscuro style (featuring pronounced contrasts of light, chiaro, and deep shadow, scuro), a man is being buried, a nude beggar is being clothed, and—this artist never pulled any punches—a starving prisoner suckles a woman.

Caravaggio, as with most geniuses, was a difficult artist and personality. His romantic bad-boy reputation as the original bohemian, complete with angry, nihilistic, rebel-with-a-cause sneer and roistering lifestyle, has dominated interpretations of his revolutionary oeuvre, undermining its intense religiosity, in which the act of painting almost becomes an act of penance.

This is perhaps understandable—most of the documents pertaining to his life relate to his problems with the law and make for a good story indeed (he came to Naples after killing a man in a bar brawl in Rome, where his cardinal patrons could no longer protect him).

But in spite of (or perhaps because of) his personal life, Caravaggio painted some of the most moving religious art ever produced in the West, whittling away all the rhetoric to reveal the emotional core of the subject.

His genuine love of the popular classes and for the "real" life of the street found expression in his use of ordinary street folk as models.

If his art seems to surge directly from the gut, his famous "objectivity" of observation and reduced palette have clear antecedents in paintings from his home region in northern Italy.

The simplicity and warts-and-all depictions of his characters show a deeply original response to the Counter-Reformation writings on religious art by Carlo Borromeo, a future saint, also from Lombardy.

The Seven Acts of Mercy, the first altarpiece commissioned for the new church of the charitable institution, has been called "the most important religious painting of the 17th century" by the great 20th-century Italian art critics Roberto Longhi and Giuliano Argan. This astonishing painting immediately inspired the seven imitative Acts of Mercy individually depicted by other Neapolitan artists on the remaining seven walls of the same chapel, and the painting could lay claim to having kick-started the Neapolitan Baroque, with visual relations being expressed purely in terms of dramatic light and shadow, further exalting the contrasts of human experience.

Updated: 2014-04-14

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