The Allegory of Mercy by Unknown Artist

Unknown artist

The Allegory of Mercy, 1342–52, Fresco, Museo del Bigallo, Florence, HIP / Art Resource, NY

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What You Give is What You Get

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In this fresco, the seven works of mercy are depicted within eight of the eleven medallions inserted in the decorative border of the lavish liturgical cope worn by the central female figure. She is identified by an inscription on her tiara as 'MISERICORDIA DOMINI' ('Mercy of the Lord'). The first six works of mercy appear in the sequence in which they are mentioned in Matthew 25:35–36 (read left to right in descending order) and are accompanied by the corresponding scriptural passages. The seventh work, burying the dead (Tobit 12:12), is illustrated in the bottom two medallions, with a funeral procession (right) and the body of the deceased being lowered into a grave (left).

This imposing fresco was painted in the headquarters of the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Misericordia (Confraternity of Saint Mary of Mercy), today the Museo del Bigallo, Florence. The Misericordia was one of the most important confraternities in fourteenth-century Florence. The fresco illustrates, by means of a complex allegory, the role of mercy in the salvation of humankind, which is highlighted by inscriptions. For instance, to either side of the figure's head, we discover the verse in Jesus’s description of the Last Judgement inviting the merciful to take possession of the eternal kingdom (Matthew 25:34), and on the crown of her tiara a prominent Greek letter 'Tau'—in Ezekiel 9:3–9, those who were chosen to survive the destruction of Jerusalem were marked on their foreheads with the letter.

To either side of the central figure, we see groups of devotees: men to her right and women to her left. These are remarkable as characterizations of different ages and situations in life—the women in the front row are notable for their opulent costumes. Whether they represent members of the Misericordia or are just generic portrayals of Florentine citizens remains open to interpretation. Protected beneath the hem of Mercy’s robe, we discover the earliest known ‘portrait’ of the city of Florence. Indeed, by performing the works of mercy, the Misericordia was working towards the salvation of the entire citizenry.

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