The Seven Works of Mercy by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Seven Works of Mercy, 1380s, Fresco, The Baptistry, Parma, AGF Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

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‘You Did it to Me’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Federico Botana

This fresco consists of individual scenes representing the works of mercy. Christ appears above each scene emerging from a cloud. He holds the Scriptures in one hand, and with the other he points down at one of the persons receiving assistance, recalling the passage in the description of the Last Judgement in which Christ exclaims: ‘as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).

This fresco is an outstanding visual testimony to the charitable practices of a late medieval confraternity, the Consortium Vivorum et Defunctorum (Consortium of the Living and the Dead), which was based in the Cathedral of Parma. In every scene, the benefactor performing the works of mercy is a bearded man with a wrinkled face dressed in a white cloak—probably the habit worn by members of the Consortium to perform good works.

The depictions of beneficiaries are also remarkable. In the scene representing the work of feeding the hungry (top register, right), we see beggars on crutches. In giving drink to the thirsty (middle register, left), one of them has lost both his hands—his stumps are dressed in bandages—and the benefactor is helping him to drink wine out of a large glass beaker. In clothing the naked (middle register, right), we see three healthy young men; the benefactor is clothing one of them with a shirt, whilst his two companions await their turn in their breeches. By contrast, the beneficiaries in lodging the stranger (top register, left) are pilgrims wearing coats and hats, one pinned with the shell of St James.

The seventh work of mercy, burying the dead (Tobit 12:12), was depicted to the right of the base of the vertical rectangle containing the six works from Matthew 25:35–36. Of this scene, only a few traces of pigment remain, but we can still see the shape of Christ's cloud and his pointing arm.

‘You did it to me’. In each pointing gesture Christ reveals his presence, incognito, in a different form. We discover just how close he may be.