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.
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.’