The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy

In the Christian tradition, “the acts of mercy” are general practices that all adherents are expected to perform as part of their devotion. These ethical habits, which fulfill the material and non-material needs of human beings, are simply defined in paragraph 2447 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as:

charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God…

Out of the ‘spiritual’ and ‘bodily’ works (enumerations of seven each) prescribed, it is the latter set, understandably, that has been explored more easily through visual art. The source for the first six of the bodily or corporal works of mercy – (1) feeding the hungry, (2) giving drink to the thirsty, (3) sheltering the homeless (4) clothing the naked (5) visiting the sick and (6) visiting the imprisoned – is Christ’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. They are the criteria for ultimate divine judgement. It is on the basis of these acts that an adherent is declared righteous or unrighteous and directed to heaven or hell, respectively. The last corporal work, (7) burying the dead, is adopted from the Old Testament book of Tobit (1:17-19) – included in the Catholic and Orthodox but not the Protestant biblical canon. It was added to the list in 1207 by Pope Innocent III.

Here are a few depictions:

(Most can be clicked on and enlarged further. Additional links of interest are provided below the pictures.)

 

7 Works of Mercy (Haarlem)
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by a painter from the Noord-Hollandse school of Haarlem, the Netherlands (1580), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Museum Website

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The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by the Master of Alkmaar (1504), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Wikipedia

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The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564 – 1637/8), Private Collection, Wikimedia Commons

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7 Works of Mercy (Meester van de Levensbron)
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Meester van de Levensbron (“karinvogt”, CC BY-SA 2.0) Wikimedia Commons

 

7 Works of Mercy (Pieter Aertsen)
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Pieter Aertsen (1575), Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, Wikimedia Commons

 

7 Works of Mercy (Frans Francken II)
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Frans II Francken (1605), German Historical Museum, Berlin, Wikimedia Commons

 

The Corporal Works of Mercy by Pierre Montallier (c. 1680), St. Petersburg, Wikipedia

 

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Caravaggio (c. 1607), Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples, Wikipedia

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13 thoughts on “The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy

    1. Thanks 🙂 I’ve studied art history with religion (mostly Christianity) and philosophy (largely Western) and some literature (modern European) so I operate from an inter-disciplinary perspective. Here I try to be as broad as possible though – I’ve gone through books on a “global” history of art.

      When it comes to teaching or talking about art I’ve been very much inspired by the work of Umberto Eco. He was pithy and precise and used illustrations generously. I’m trying to employ a similar method.

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      1. I’ve read some about the roots and development of Christianity from Bart Ehrman, Karen Armstrong and a few others. I’ve not tried to link it with art. I look forward to seeing more of your posts.

        I am a nature photographer. I try to tell the story: this is who I am and this is how I survive. A topic with some religious undertones. Besides my blog, my work is at http://www.earthwatcher.us

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      2. There is a good amount of literature available that explores art/aesthetics and the Christian worldview.

        If you’re into nature, you might find this essay interesting, which a professor of mine wrote for Tate Modern in London: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/ben-quash-the-de-sublimations-of-christian-art-r1140522

        This radio feature for the BBC could also be helpful: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018sqpk

        Finally, you could check out the blog Transpositions (http://www.transpositions.co.uk/), based at the Uni of St. Andrews, Scotland, which is all about “theology, imagination and arts”…

        I think all of this can make sense to a secular mind.

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  1. What a wonderful curator you are. I noticed that some of these works are from the northern parts of the Netherlands late in the sixteenth century, when the Seven Provinces were fighting for independence from RC Spain. The City of Haarlem fell to the Spanish in 1573, thus becoming Catholic again, and fighting was at its height during these years, with cities going back and forth between Catholic and Protestant. All that turmoil perhaps explaining a focus on the literal depiction of the catechism.

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    1. Thanks for commenting 🙂

      I imagine the Catholic-Protestant tension ended up fueling a lot of creativity.

      The Protestants, despite their emphasis on faith rather than works, would paradoxically create “active” art of their own because they wanted ordinary people to take place of venerated saints.

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  2. I am so glad to have seen this. I coordinated briefly with an NGO on the island of Lesvos, Greece, called I58, referring to Isaiah verse 58, which refers to the corporal acts of mercy. Thank you and I look forward to future postings.

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