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.
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.’