The overall composition of The Seven Acts of Mercy is based on that of an engraving by Philip Galle, after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1559; Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam).1 All of the recorded painted versions follow the composition of the engraving closest, and not that of the original drawing, from which there are slight, but numerous changes. Pieter Brueghel the Younger executed the composition on a number of separate occasions (see Ertz 2000, vol. I, cat. nos. 376-391); Ertz lists nine paintings as autograph (including the present work), and five further versions which he considers doubtful. Of the nine which are original and the five which are doubtful, twelve bear a signature. The signature in this particular version (BREUGHEL instead of BRUEGHEL) suggests that it was executed later in his career. Prior to 1616 Pieter the Younger signed his name with the spelling BRVEGHEL; after 1616, however, he signed as BREVGHEL. Interestingly however, it should be noted that Brueghel did not date any of the recorded or extant versions of this composition.
The events displayed in this lively panel depict the Seven Christian Acts of Mercy. Taken from Matthew 25:35-6, these acts describe physical gestures of goodwill and mercy which all able Christians are obliged to perform as part of their devotion to their faith. They are: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to visit and ransom the captive (prisoners); to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; and to bury the dead.
A sixteenth century village square near Antwerp sets the stage for this dynamic and crisply drawn rendering of these seven acts of mercy As was typical throughout the career of both Brueghel, and his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the artist has here depicted a biblical or morally driven scene within a contemporary and civic framework. The notion of personal goodwill towards others was fully entrenched in the ethos of Brueghel’s strictly Protestant contemporaries, and the message displayed here would have been clearly understood in the artist’s own lifetime. It is possible then to view this energetic and bold picture as a didactic tool by which viewers could learn how to perform the Acts of Mercy in everyday life. Furthermore, when viewed from a modern perspective, the painting serves as a window into a society fully devoted to the pursuit of personal salvation.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger depicts the Seven Acts of Mercy from the vantage point of a participant in the communal activities. Each individual act is spaced so as to recognize the individual metaphor, though the overall impression is still one of a realistic social interaction. At lower left is the act of 'feeding of the hungry', depicted as two men hand out loaves of bread to a rushing group of ragged and starving people. To the right Brueghel illustrates the act of "clothing the naked", in which men and women provide clean white under garments to a cluster of scantily clad individuals in tattered and worn clothing. In the middle left ground the act of "giving drink to the thirsty" is illustrated in a similar way to that of "feeding the hungry". A gathering of extremely parched people approach three large wooden casks, from which jugs are filled for distribution. To their right is a modest brick home, from which the owner emerges to receive two homeless visitors waiting outside his front door. Just below this scene representing the 'sheltering of the homeless' is a house with wall knocked out for the viewer to observe yet another act of mercy, that of two men visiting a sickly old man as he is looked after by his wife. In the left background is a ledge where shackled prisoners are also visited by a well-to-do man and woman who extend their hand in moral support. Finally, in the far right background Brueghel displays the act of "burying the dead". Two men struggle to lift and carry a coffin towards the entrance of a typical small Antwerp church.
When the picture was with Richard Green, London, Klauz Ertz endorsed the full attribution to Brueghel.
A Note on the Provenance:
The painting was owned by Peter Vischer-Passavant, an avid art collector and amateur printmaker whose family purchased the medieval Schloss Wildenstein in 1717. Schloss Wildenstein was developed in the middle of the 13th century and was the seat of the von Baden family in the domain of Wildenstein from 1380. Vischer-Passavant possibly inherited The Seven Acts of Mercy picture from his father, Peter Vischer-Sarasin (1751-1823), the foremost collector of Old Master Paintings in Basel during his lifetime. Vischer-Sarasin himself inherited a number of pictures from his own father, but most were purchased from dealers and at auction (including one hundred paintings from the von Baden family auction in 1808), the majority of which hung at Schloss Wildenstein. A large portion of the family collection which hung at Schloss Wildenstein was sold at Christie's London in 1990, though this work appears to have left the collection by 1962.
1. K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen 2000, vol. I, p.388, fig. 277.