Have Mercy on Me

Seven Acts of Mercy

This is sure a busy scene! The eye is not sure where to land, but that is the style of this artist, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Yes, there was an elder—his father, of course. The younger Pieter was most known for making numerous copies of his father’s work, but he did some original compositions as well, such as this one. Pieter the Younger had been nicknamed “Hell Brueghel” because it was believed he was the author of several paintings with fantastic depictions of fire and grotesque imagery. These paintings have now been attributed to his brother Jan Brueghel the Elder.

The title of this painting is, “The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy,” which is a practice that would be more familiar to someone in the Catholic tradition. It is based on Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus talks of separating the sheep from the goats. He says, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These merciful acts are to be performed for the sake of both penance and charity and the painting would have served as a teaching tool for the peasants of the time.

Looking at the list below, can you pick out these seven acts of mercy in the painting?

  1. Feed the hungry; 
  2. Give drink to the thirsty; 
  3. Clothe the naked; 
  4. Visit the prisoner; 
  5. Shelter the homeless; 
  6. Visit the sick; 
  7. Bury the dead

Those of you who are paying attention will notice that Matthew 25 only mentions six acts. The seventh act, burying the dead, was added in the Middle Ages and comes from the apocryphal Book of Tobit (a book found in the Catholic Bible, but not the Protestant).

This scene serves as a window into what society could look like if we all practiced mercy. We are called both corporately and individually to carry these acts out. It also reminds us of Matthew 9:13, where we are told that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

Being Human connection: This painting sold for $2.2 million at a Sotheby’s New York auction in 2013. Think of how many acts of mercy this painting could have funded! But who am I to judge?

Featured art: Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1637), “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” oil painting.

P.S. Last week, I highlighted my sister’s artwork. This week I would also like to direct you to a video my other sister wrote and had a large hand in producing. It is powerful and so well done (and in Turkish so you need to click on the closed caption button). It is humbling to come from such a talented family! Here is the link. Please share and use it as you can. She also has a book and a blog you can check out at faithanddrama.com

P.S.S. Back to the painting: I don’t know what happened to the guy’s legs in the front center. How convoluted!