Marten van Cleve - The Works of Mercy
Marten van Cleve
The Works of Mercy
Oil on panel (parquetted). 75.5 x 108.
Christian tradition defines seven acts of corporal and seven acts of spiritual mercy, or deeds of help during times of existential crisis. Many examples of these merciful acts can be found throughout the Old Testament, but the most common canonical source for the list of works is found in the New Testament in Matthew 25:34-46. This passage emphasises the idea that the righteous person does good works without hoping for reward. The traditional list of works of spiritual mercy is based on the writings of the church father Augustine (354-430), who mentions that the works must be varied according to the needs of the one being helped. The traditional corporal works are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to strangers, visit the sick, free those who are imprisoned, and bury the dead. The works of spiritual mercy include instructing the ignorant, giving counsel to the doubtful, admonishing the sinners, comforting the afflicted, bearing patiently those who wrong us, forgiving insults, and praying for the living and the dead.
This work depicts the “clothing of the naked” in the centre, and on the right we see a group of strangers approaching and awaiting shelter from the townspeople. On the hill we see a pale corpse being prepared for burial. On the right of the painting we see mourning figures - men, women, and children - receiving comfort from their fellows. A shepherd lays his head hopelessly in his hand at the foot of the hill.
Cleve places the groups of figures in the scenery with a keen eye for the theatrical. He conjures the appearance of disorder in a highly organised composition, and sets colourful accents with a vivid red. Martin van Cleve belonged to the same generation of artists as the great Pieter van Brueghel the Elder who transformed Antwerp into one of the leading artistic centres of the 16th century.
Dr. Klaus Ertz, Lingen, April 2019.