Every masterpiece must keep a certain level of mystery, a layer of things unexplained and unexplainable, something in the style of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. A true masterpiece is like a classy woman who leaves something mysterious about herself, disclosing it only to those who deserve it. A definition that applies to most of Caravaggio's paintings: beautifully realistic, but always with a deeper layer of significance inside; a layer that you don't conquer if you don't make some effort in order to deserve it.
This is especially true for "the seven acts of mercy", one of the eeriest and most beautiful paintings by Caravaggio, perhaps the one that contains the most complex message that the author even created. A message, however, that's not easy for us to understand and that perhaps we'll never be able to unravel completely. But, it is worth to make the effort for a painting that was one of the last efforts of Caravaggio, possibly his most ambitious ever.
If you have a chance to see the original painting, in Naples, then you have no other adjective to describe it than "stunning". It stands in the church of the Pio Monte, in a large hall, surrounded by several other paintings of the same, or slightly later, age. All high-quality paintings, some of which were probably conceived as in competition, or perhaps in imitation, of Caravaggio's piece. But the distance between the masterpiece and the competitors is stark. Caravaggio is something else. Think of a wolf in a pack of poodles and you can understand what I mean.
But, apart from the overall visual effect, what is that you are seeing? What does this painting mean? What did Caravaggio want to say with it? If you look at the many available interpretations, you'll find that most of them concentrate on the various groups of figures represented, assigning to each one the role of representing a specific act of mercy (see, for instance, the recent book by Terence Ward, "The Guardian of Mercy"). So, the woman who offers her breast to the old man represents, "Pero", the Roman woman who secretly breastfed her father, Cimon, after that he was incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. This action is worth two acts of mercy: "feed the hungry" and "free the incarcerated".
In this way, each group can find a specific interpretation, which is fine. But what is the meaning of the whole composition? In other words, how do the various groups relate to each other and interact with each other? Just to give some idea of the kind of questions that can be asked about this painting, let me list a few
- Why is the woman breastfeeding her father so afraid? What is she looking at?
- Why did Caravaggio include Samson in the composition? What act of mercy is involved in Samson drinking from the ass jawbone that he had used to slaughter thousands of Philistines?
- What are the two Angels doing? Are they fighting with each other? If so, for what reason?
- Why do the characters completely ignore the angels and the virgin Mary flying just above them?
- Why this complete separation between the upper part of the painting (Madonna and Angels) and the lower part? They seem almost like two different painting.
And I could go on. As an answer, it may be argued that Caravaggio was in a hurry and that he was not trying to tell a single, coherent story. He just piled up characters and stories as he saw them, in the busy streets of Naples, at his time (and, today, the city atmosphere may not have changed so much).
But I think we may also try an interpretation of the overall composition if we think of the peculiar conditions of Caravaggio when he was working on this painting. He was a fugitive from Rome, where he had been sentenced to death because he had killed a man. And it may be that this situation is reflected in the composition of the painting.
So, first of all, let's take a look at the woman's face, the only female character of the human section of the painting. We don't know who modeled for Caravaggio in this painting, but if you compare this face with that of another Caravaggio's piece, Judith in "Judith killing Holofernes", well there are some elements in common; in particular, the round shape of the face. Filide Melandroni, Caravaggio's lover in Rome, is often supposed to have posed for Judith in that painting. And this Filide may well have been the cause of the duel in which Caravaggio killed his rival and was then sentenced to death. So, let's imagine that the breastfeeding woman somehow represents Filide. Then, what is she looking at that is making her so worried? The direction of her glance is rather clear: it goes to the figure of Samson, who is drinking from the ass jawbone.
Now we can propose a tentative interpretation. Samson has killed many people with the ass bone he is drinking from. He killed them for a good reason, but he remains a murderer. It is the situation of Caravaggio, who may have been thinking of having good reasons for killing his rival, but who may have been seeing himself as a murderer nevertheless. So, if Samson represents Caravaggio, the woman may represent Filide, in a sense betraying Caravaggio by offering her breast to another man. Note how Samson/Caravaggio is the only character looking "outside" the painting; he is looking up, but in the wrong direction: the divine pardon is over him, but he cannot see it. Note how Samson is also denied the shelter that, instead, is offered to another character in the painting, just nearby.
And the upper layer of the painting? One of the angels looks at the woman, the other at Samson. Why are they fighting? It is perhaps a conflict that takes place in heaven as a reflection of the conflict taking place on earth. The sky is not a refuge, for Caravaggio. At the same time, another kind of mercy is entering the painting from the center-right. It is the small procession with a priest blessing the body of a deceased person. The priest is really the focal figure of the painting, the one who brings light, the only light of the painting. Caravaggio/Samson is looking in the other direction, but the message is clear: his sin of murder can be atoned and pardoned with death. In some way, Caravaggio was prefigurating his own death that would occur not much later, on a Tuscan beach.
Is this really what Caravaggio had in mind? We will never know for sure and it is also true that real artists often act on the basis of intuition rather than a well-defined plan. That may be true for this painting, whose meaning may have appeared as a surprise to Caravaggio himself as he saw it appearing under the strokes of his brush. That must be the way masterpieces are created, and this is surely one.
h/t Antonio Cavaliere who inoculated me with the Caravaggio virus.