In his description of the Last Judgement, Christ does not mince his words: those who help the needy will enjoy everlasting life, those who do not will be thrown into everlasting fire. This prophetic parable establishes a contract between Christ and humankind: he lived as a poor man and died on the cross as an act of mercy to save us; in order to attain salvation, we for our part must be imitators of him and show mercy towards those who suffer.
By the early twelfth century, theologians had transformed the six good deeds referred to in the parable (Matthew 25:35–36) into a list of deeds of alms, the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, lodging the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners. A seventh work, burying the dead, inspired by the deuterocanonical book of Tobit (12:12), was soon added to complete a septenary.
In the thirteenth century, theologians codified the performance of mercy to the smallest details—including questions such as to whom, by whom, how, and when alms should be given. This happened in parallel with growing numbers of laypeople flocking into confraternities and hospitals to help the poor and the sick, and an increasingly flourishing imagery of mercy. The works in this exhibition attest to the burgeoning of this attention to mercy in the Middle Ages—in theory, praxis, and art.
The cycle in the painted Last Judgement panel in the Pinacoteca Vaticana predates by several decades the canonical adoption of the sexenary in Matthew 25:35–36. We may thus gather that the aristocratic canonesses of Santa Maria in Campo Marzio were especially devoted to the care of the poor. But we must also consider the political context of the time, which saw the beginnings of the Gregorian Reform. The cycle evokes the Church of the early Christians, a society of mutual help in which all property was held in common (Acts 4:32–35). The appropriation of ecclesiastical property by nobles was one of the main concerns of the reformers; and one of the arguments they invoked to oppose the squandering of ecclesiastical benefices was that the patrimony of the Church was the patrimony of the poor. This context of reform can be credited with both the emergence of cycles of works of mercy in art and the creation of a canonical list of deeds of alms by theologians.
The other two examples illustrate the praxis of the works of mercy by laypeople in the later Middle Ages. The activities of the Consortium of the Living and the Dead, represented in the fresco cycle at Parma, are largely documented. Like most medieval confraternities, its principal activity was to conduct funerals and commemorative masses for dead members. Accordingly, burying the dead took a larger wall space than the other works of mercy—it was probably illustrated with two scenes, as we see in the Allegory of Divine Mercy in Florence. On the occasion of commemorative masses, the Consortium gave bread and wine to beggars, like those represented in the fresco. Benefactors left bequests to the Consortium to dress three paupers every year, as we also see in the fresco. And the Consortium contributed financially to the release of prisoners (the Parma scene shows not just a visit to but a discharge from prison).
In the medallions in the Allegory of Mercy, the works are not represented in such vivid detail, even though the confraternity of the Misericordia performed all the deeds represented here. Instead, the emphasis is on the salvific power of mercy. The central figure, an allegorical representation of mercy, can also be identified as the Virgin of Mercy, to whom the confraternity was dedicated—depictions of the Virgin of Mercy usually include groups of devotees to either side of the figure of Mary, whom she protects under her mantle. The central figure is, furthermore, a representation of the Church—she wears a papal tiara and a liturgical cope. More importantly, she can be considered a representation of the corpus ecclesiae mysticum, namely the Church as the mystic union of all Christians in the Eucharistic sacrifice. In the writings of medieval theologians, we discover a direct relationship between the corpus mysticum and the works of mercy—some even stress that the members of the corpus interact with each other by performing the works.
The Allegory of Mercy bring us back to the contract established in Christ’s teaching about the Last Judgement: to fully benefit from the redeeming power of Christ's sacrifice, Christians must help each other.
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31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’