The Church, the Artwork, and the Custodian

Caravaggio painted all seven corporal works of mercy on a single canvas, entitled “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” This painting, despite Caravaggio’s soaring popularity, remains relatively little known. Why? It’s in a church in the back streets of Naples, and it has to stay there.

In a fascinating article at RNS, David Gibson summarizes the story, recently recounted in a new book by Terrance Ward:

The main problem was finding the painting. The Pio Monte society that commissioned the work stipulated that it remain in the church, and even as Caravaggio’s reputation was revived in recent decades, “The Seven Acts of Mercy” was largely left behind because it was never part of a museum’s collection or any special exhibition outside Naples.

Moreover, few would wander down the warren of Neapolitan streets to the church the way Terence Ward did one day in 1998. Stunned by what he found in the painting, he was just as captivated by the custodian of the church who stood guard in virtual solitude: Angelo Esposito, a onetime city sewer worker who in one of the city’s typically dysfunctional reorganizations was shuttled to look after this backwater masterwork.

The custodian, who, spending so many hours with this artwork had grown to appreciate it, helps to tell the story of Caravaggio’s painting.

“In the end, his art isn’t about bishops in silk robes giving handouts to the needy,” Esposito tells Ward at one point. “It’s about simple people helping one another. He’s the artist of the poor. Our artist! There’s no one else like him. It’s all there! … What more do you want?”

You can read the whole thing here.

One comment

  1. I highly recommend the book by Terence Ward, The Guardian of Mercy. It was a very enjoyable read. It mixes the history of Caravaggio and the painting, the story of the “guardian” himself and the journey of the author and his wife in discovering the painting and the guardian. The author also ties in the Year of Mercy into the story line and does so quite well.

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