Breastfeeding prisoners and other good deeds – Naples, Italy

In the centre of Naples lies a small church, the Pio Monte della Misericordia, which literally means ‘the pious mountain of mercy’. It was founded in the beginning of the 17th century by a charity brotherhood and you can see the idea of charity everywhere. The church has a relatively simple interior, which is mainly white with some grey. But the paintings are really worth taking a look at. All of them have something to do with doing good deeds.

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In the top left picture for example, we can see some people burying a man, which was considered an important good deed. On the top right we see a painting of Jesus and a woman who had commited adultery. The story goes that people wanted to stone her because she was caught in the act of committing adultery. Jesus then said: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Everyone went away and Jesus forgave the woman. This theme was very popular in the 17th century, because many people were converting to protestantism and this theme sent the message that they could be forgiven if they converted back to catholicism.

The most important work in the church, the altarpiece, is a painting by Caravaggio called Sette Opere di Misericordia (seven works of mercy). In just one painting, Caravaggio captures seven important good deeds.

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During our excursion, we couldn’t figure out all seven works, we could only discover six. We recognized Pero and Cimon on the right, the woman breastfeeding the imprisoned man. This is a Roman story about charity. Cimon was sentenced to death by starvation, but his daughter Pero breastfed him when she came to visit him. This impressed the officers so much, they decided to release Cimon. So this part of the painting represents both feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned. Behind them, we see two people burying a dead person, which is of course the good deed burying the dead. On the left we see Saint Martin of Tours. He is well known for his good deed of cutting his cloak in two and giving half of it to a beggar who barely had any clothes on while it was winter. So we knew that this had to be clothing the poor/naked. I later read that this also represented visiting the sick. Behind Saint Martin, we see a pilgrim talking to an innkeeper, which must be sheltering the homeless. And behind them, we see Samson drinking from a donkey’s jaw, which must be refreshing the thirsty.

On the top, we see Mary and baby Jesus, watching people doing good deeds and two falling angles. As far as we know, these angels don’t have any meaning, but they do add much movement to the painting and we can see this motive of falling angles in many paintings by artists who were inspired by Caravaggio.

The message this church conveys is one of charity, love and forgiveness. It makes sure you know the importance of charity for your salvation, even if that means you have to breastfeed your imprisoned father… I guess.

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