Caravaggio in Naples
In 1606, Caravaggio fled to Naples from Rome after killing a man. While seeking safety with the Colonna family in Naples, Caravaggio earned a commission which would later prove to be one of his most defining works, The Seven Works of Mercy (Sette Opere di Misericordia).
Caravaggio planned to create seven separate panels to depict the seven works, or acts, of mercy however, he instead combined all the acts into one composition. Six of the acts of mercy are from the Biblical book of Matthew and the seventh act is from the book of Tobias:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:35-36
The seventh work of mercy, “burying the dead” comes from the book of Tobias.
At the top of the painting we see the Madonna and a child as well as two angels looking on. Wikipedia describes the rest of the scene which depicting the acts as follows:
1. Bury the dead. In the background, two men carry a dead man (of whom only the feet are visible).
2 & 3. Visit the imprisoned, and feed the hungry. On the right, a woman visits an imprisoned man and gives him milk from her breast. This image alludes to the classical story of Roman Charity.
4. Shelter the homeless. A pilgrim (third from left, as identified by the shell in his hat) asks an innkeeper (at far left) for shelter.
5. Clothe the naked. St. Martin of Tours, fourth from the left, has torn his robe in half and given it to the naked beggar in the foreground, recalling the saint’s popular legend.
6. Visit the sick. St. Martin greets and comforts the beggar who is a cripple.
7. Refresh the thirsty. Samson (second from the left), drinks water from the jawbone of an ass.
Today, the painting is one of Naples prized possessions and it can’t be found in a museum or a gallery, instead it is displayed above the altar of a small octagonal church, Pio Monte della Misericordia (Pious Mount of Mercy) around the corner from Naples Cathedral, the Duomo. The church, for which the painting was originally commissioned, has been home to the painting since its creation.
Following the completion of The Seven Works of Mercy, the di Franco family commissioned Caravaggio to create The Flagellation of Christ for the church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples. The painting is dated 1607 but some believe Caravaggio may have reworked the piece in 1610 during his second stay in Naples. The Flagellation of Christ is now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.
A few months after arriving in Naples, Caravaggio left for Malta and after once again experiencing a brush with trouble headed for Sicily. After nine months he once again returned to Naples, in September or October 1609, and asked the Colonna family to provide him with safety as he awaited a pardon from the Pope. In the first half of 1610, Caravaggio painted The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula for Marcantonio Doria, the young noblemen from Genoa. This ended up being one of the last paintings Caravaggio ever made. The artist died on July 18, 1610 at the age of 38. Martyrdom of Saint Ursula is now located in The Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano.