Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Works of Mercy in Art - M. Hengelaar

The Seven Works of Mercy in Art

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

In 1559 Pieter Bruegel the Elder completed an engraving in which he – original as always and the first to do so – brought the seven works or acts of mercy together in one print. Six of the works of mercy, feeding the hungry, refreshing the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned, spring from Matthew 25:35-36. Burying the dead, the seventh work, was added by Pope Innocent III in 1207. The etching shows a village square on which the seven works are grouped around a woman, who as Caritas personifies divine love. In her hand she holds a burning heart and on her head stands a pelican which pecks herself in her chest in order to feed her young with her blood, as believed at the time. That is why the pelican came to be seen as a symbol of Christ who, motivated by love, shed his own blood. This engraving shows the coherence of the giving love of Christ and that of humans. We are connected with Jesus when we care for one another. He is the source of our love, our example, our ideal.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Caritas, 1559, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

At the time this affordable print was displayed in many a living room. The Latin caption reads, freely translated: 

Hope that what happens to others will also happen to you, because you will thereby be motivated to help, when you empathize with the feelings of another who in the midst of misery makes an appeal to you.

Love is celebrated here, even when it is coupled with suffering, even when it requires a willingness to make sacrifices.

With Bruegel’s festival of love we have landed within the rich world of art. In this article we will consider ten works of art, featuring the seven works of mercy one by one. We begin in the Middle Ages and arrive via the Renaissance, the Reformation, the seventeenth and the twentieth century in our own time, as also in our own day and age there are artists who are inspired by the seven works of mercy. This overview will show that these artworks mirror the theological ideas and the charitable works of their times.


The Last Judgement

Anonymous: The Last Judgement with the seven works of mercy and the seven deadly sins, 1490- 1500, Maagdenhuis, Antwerp, Belgium

In this painting from the late Middle Ages we see the last judgement depicted at the top. In the middle register we see from left to right: feeding, refreshing, sheltering and clothing the needy supplemented with three deadly sins (pride, envy and sloth). In the lower register we see the visitation of the sick, the visitation of the imprisoned and the burial of the dead next to wrath, greed, gluttony and lust. The good works are situated on Jesus’ right side, at the side of heaven. The sins are on the left side, the side of hell. In each of the depictions of the charitable works we see Jesus among the people, blessing them. In most we also see a saint (e.g. St Martin and St Elisabeth), while the devil is present in all the portrayals of the deadly sins. It is a well-ordered composition that mirrors the systematics of scholastic theology.

The combination of the works of mercy and the Last Judgement does not need to surprise us, as Jesus himself links them in Matthew 25:31-46 in what is sometimes called the Parable of the Last Judgement. This parable begins with “When the Son of Man comes in his splendour, he will sit on his glorious throne […] and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” This has been pictured in artworks since the twelfth century, for example, on the Gallus Gate of the Cathedral in Basel, dating from 1170, where the Last Judgement is accompanied by the five wise and the five foolish virgins and the works of mercy. It is understandable that these works were pictured frequently and prominently in the medieval world, as caring for others was considered to play an important role in the redemption or perdition of a person. Charity was a matter of life or death, of eternal salvation or eternal damnation. Also for us are in charity our humanity and solidarity at stake and hence the state of our soul. Not only with an eye to the future, but also in the present.


Clothing the Naked

Andrea della Robbia: Infants, 1485, Hospital of the Innocents, Florence, Italy 

A long row of medallions with helpless babies seemingly standing up but actually lying down, hands empty, decorate the frieze of the Hospital of the Innocents in Florence, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and opened in 1444. This ‘hospital’ was a home for foundlings, where they could be left anonymously. Here thousands of orphans received loving care and only left the institute after they had learned a trade, so that they could provide for their own needs. The wealthy Florentine Silk Guild arranged for the hospital to be built. In this way they dedicated themselves, just like other guilds, to the city’s destitute.

What a great good, this large network of monasteries, nunneries, churches, hospitals, hospices, poor houses, orphanages, rooms for almoners, alms-houses for widows and aged persons that was developed in Europe through the ages. The medallions show that the Florentines were proud of their work and that they valued the infants. The foundlings were given the surname of ‘Innocenti’, ‘Nocentini’ and ‘Degl’Innocenti,’ meaning ‘The Innocent.’ These names are still widespread in and around Florence today. In 1485 Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to make an altar piece for the home featuring the Adoration of the Magi. Rremarkably enough, he also made room on the altarpiece for the Massacre of the Innocents. These murdered children were considered to be the first Christian martyrs and called ‘the holy innocents,’ the santi innocenti. One group of babies had their life taken, the other had their life given…


Refreshing the Thirsty

Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrinck: Pulpit, ca. 1655, Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

With this panel on the pulpit in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam we have arrived at the Reformation and the Protestant view of charity. At the front we see John the Evangelist, recognisable from the eagle. Behind him we see three scenes of mercy where demand and supply play a role. It is difficult to determine precisely which works they represent. Given the central place of the word and preaching the pulpit rightfully is one of the large eye-catchers in the church. In addition to the richly decorated body, this 13-metre-high pulpit also has an enormous soundboard. The seven works of mercy are pictured at the eye-level of the worshippers. Next to them, on the corners of the pulpit, are the virtues and in front of them the four evangelists. This sequence was chosen intentionally: the proclamation of the gospel comes first, followed by good works.

Since in Protestant theology it is not our good works that accomplish our redemption – justification by faith alone! – the seven works of mercy were apportioned a less important status after the Reformation. But they remained relevant, as witnessed by their eye-catching place on this pulpit. Love for the neighbour was still considered an essential part of the Christian lifestyle, flowing out of the work of the Holy Spirit in converted hearts.


Jan Steen: The mayor of Delft and his daughter, 1655, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

However, charity is not always easy and can derail in all kinds of ways, as the seventeenth- century painting by Catholic artist Jan Steen shows us. Art historians now think that Jan Steen did not portray the Delft mayor and his daughter, but the grain merchant Adolf Croeser with his 13-year-old daughter. He had them pose in their best clothes in front of their canal-side home at the Oude Delft, opposite his own brewery. In the painting a woman asks the rich businessman for alms, which he is not altogether willing to offer her. The daughter pays no attention at all to the miserable wretches. It seems very likely that this painting denounces this flashy, show-off, smug wealth in a satirical manner. Nobody can serve two masters. Watch out, all is vanity, life and wealth are of short duration, the vase with flowers in the windowsill indicates.


Feeding the Hungry

Fritz Eichenberg: The Christ of the Breadlines, 1950, Catholic Worker Portfolio, USA

Seven quiet, hungry individuals, focussed inward, are standing patiently in a queue in front of the soup kitchen. They are waiting for a meal that they could not prepare for themselves. It is dark and cold. Jesus is standing in the middle, in their midst, as in the paintings of old, hungry as in Matthew 25:35. While Jesus’ halo sheds light on the others, he himself is completely black, as if he has taken all their blackness on himself. This woodcut was made by Fritz Eichenberg, a German artist who emigrated to the USA in 1933, a Jew who became a Quaker because he believed that God could be found everywhere and in everybody.

In New York Eichenberg became an important graphic artist and illustrator, while he taught at the Pratt Institute and the University of Rhode Island. Apart from book illustrations and prints with biblical subjects, he also created works that expressed concern for social justice and pacifism. He was involved in Catholic social work through his friendship with Dorothy Day, a devoted activist who published the Catholic Worker. She also organised tens of ‘homes of hospitality’ around the world, where volunteers provided food, clothes, and a place to sleep for fellow human beings who had become unemployed and homeless. About her organisation she said: “Our rule is the works of mercy. It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence.” With Day and Eichenberg we see a new aspect of charity: not only the relief of suffering by ad hoc intervention, but also the commitment to the transformation of unjust social structures. 


Sheltering the Homeless

Egbert Modderman: Lodging Strangers, 2020, Martinikerk Groningen, The Netherlands

This painting by the young Dutch artist Egbert Modderman has recently been installed in the Martinikerk in Groningen, a city in the north of the Netherlands. Modderman is currently engaged in making paintings to fill the six wide, shallow recesses at the back of the church with paintings of the works of mercy. The seventh canvas, elsewhere in the church, was the first one to materialize. It pictures St Martin, the saint who cut off half of his coat to warm a man numb with cold (clothing the naked). It makes sense for a church dedicated to St Martin to give a prominent place to the seven works of mercy, also because the many tourists visiting the church may be touched by their universal expressiveness.

The novelty in Modderman’s six paintings in the recesses is that he linked each work of mercy to a biblical story. In the painting shown here we see Joseph and a very pregnant Mary being offered a place for the night by a compassionate innkeeper. In each work in this series Modderman chose to portray the moment just before the miracle, here the moment before the miraculous human birth of the Son of God. Even before he was born Jesus was the suffering Christ, the stranger for whom there was no room in the inn, the destitute one, dependent on the goodness of others. He and his mother with her heavy womb take the centre stage. Joseph tries to lighten Mary’s burden by – how clumsy – attempting to pull her cloak upwards. Have the contractions already started? Mary looks at us frightened and exhausted.


Visiting the Imprisoned


Pat De Vylder: Redeeming the Prisoners, 2006, Sint-Apolloniakerk, Elst, Belgium

This is not a sweet and beautiful work, this painting by the Belgian artist Pat De Vylder (1933-2012. But for truth’s sake we also need raw pictures that confront us and expose derailed humanity. “Here we see such a grey, derailed man, in prison garb that evokes associations with the heinous deeds committed in German concentration camps, locked up in suicidal or murderous thoughts,” the artist remarks. The only bright spots on the canvas are the window and the letter that the man is holding with his large eager yet also vulnerable hands. He seems to be taken completely by surprise by this precious letter, on which the word ‘freedom’ can be read backwards, a sign of love and life from a faraway, unreachable world. Recently I heard a prisoner say that to receive a letter in prison is like receiving an unexpected Christmas present.

De Vylder called his work religious, although he was not religious in the traditional sense. “Religious work refers to a universal human approach to matters from the depth of the soul,” he said. In 2005/6 he made a series about the works of mercy. What Redeeming the Prisoners makes clear is that De Vylder knew how to employ empathy. Empathy is to enter into the suffering of another, to literally step into their shoes. Our imagination plays a large role here, as well as our emotions and life experience. That is why works of art are pre-eminently able to open our eyes to the misery of others, as they lay it bare for us by way of the imagination. Films, novels, songs, visual art train us in solidarity.


Visiting the Sick

Tim Lowly: Carry me, 2002, privately owned

Sometimes a work of art can make you grow, it stretches you, makes you a bit more magnanimous than you already were. This is often accompanied by a certain struggle and pain. Carry me by the American artist Tim Lowly is such a work for me. I am not so heroic – and certainly not a Mother Theresa – when it concerns seriously handicapped people. Fortunately there are people who have a special gift to love them and care for them, although I am well aware that this does not absolve me.

Temma, here pictured, is the daughter of Tim Lowly, born in 1985. Much of his work is dedicated to her. He made this large work together with six of his students, who are seen carrying Temma. They function as an image, a metaphor, for a community of care. By looking at us, the students pull us inside the circle of helpers. They also pose us an unexpressed question.

Lowly says: “Part of my fairly political agenda is to say that disabled children are a part of life. These are not freaks. What I'm saying is that we should advocate for eyes of compassion that see human beings as human beings, rather than separating them into the beautiful, the ugly, the normal, the freak.”


Burying the Dead

Thijs Wolzak with Kathelijne Eisses: Burying the Dead, 2010, Laurenskerk, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Since 2010 there has been a permanent installation by Thijs Wolzak in collaboration with Kathelijne Eisses in the Chapel of Mercy of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam. Seven large light boxes with photos are placed against the side and rear walls, two on each side and three against the back wall. They are dedicated to the works of mercy and picture seven local charitable initiatives, such as care for drug users and undocumented asylum seekers, a second-hand shop, and a medical reception centre for street people and the homeless. Above the light boxes can be read in large, decorative cast-iron letters: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Through this installation the churchgoers feel connected with the charitable works in their city, while also offering the many tourists food for thought.

Thijs Wolzak is a professional photographer, who works on commission as well as freelance. There is much to see in his photos, which at first come across as colourful and busy. What is characteristic for the photos in this polyptych of mercy is that they are set in scene and thus show more than one would normally see on an average moment. That certainly applies to the photo shown here because you do not want to interfere with an actual burial. We see an anonymous funeral service, organised by the Stichting De Eenzame Uitvaart (Foundation The Solitary Funeral Service). A burial is called anonymous, when no friends or family of the deceased are known. The poet Bart F.M. Droog was of the opinion that nobody should leave this world unnoticed. He took the initiative to write a poem about the life of an anonymous deceased person. This demanded the necessary detective work (neighbours, residence, place of birth, tattoos etc.). By now several poets have joined the foundation as volunteers. In the photo we see how one of the volunteers is reading his poem. At the end of the ceremony the poem is placed on the coffin and buried with the deceased. There is a beautiful verticality in the shot: the gentlemen dressed in black, the arrow-shaped box shrubs and the poplars point upwards and two of the men are looking at the sky, towards heaven.


Care for the Earth

Frans Franciscus: Sick Child / The Eighth Work of Mercy, 2017. Photo: Frans Franciscus

On the World Day of Prayer on September 1, 2016 Pope Francis suggested to add an eighth work of mercy: care for the creation. Both the Pope and his namesake Frans Franciscus took the name of the medieval saint intentionally. Frans Franciscus devoted a painting to this eight work in 2017. It refers in various ways to earlier art: this could be a Madonna with Child, a mother with a sick child after Gabriel Metsu and even an Adam and Eve. Through the window in the background we see the earth erupting. The left side of the wall has flowery wallpaper; the right side looks like a pattern of snakeskin. Mother and child are portrayed with masks, as if Franciscus could look into the future. Mary holds up a globe threatened by environmental disasters, in the format of an apple. Jesus turns his head away, he cannot look at the decaying planet earth and holds on tightly to his comfort blanket. But with the other hand he blesses the creation that is ruined by evil.

Mercy possesses a revolutionary quality as it goes against our natural inclinations. Mercy is the world upside down, a world without borders and walls. It is a world in which this person with a different opinion, of a different skin colour, this homosexual, transgender, asylum seeker, homeless beggar in front of the supermarket or elderly person next-door can suddenly be your neighbour who calls on you. Perhaps you yourself will unexpectedly end up as that needy neighbour. Each one of us may all of the sudden find ourselves dependent on the goodness of others or on the grace of God. Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”


This article was first published in Dutch in: Rieks Hoogenkamp and Rien Wattel (ed.), Zeven wegen. De kunst van barmhartigheid. Amsterdam: Buijten & Schipperheijn and De Roos van Culemborg, 2021.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay. She lives in the Netherlands.