Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio arrived in Naples in 1606 on the run having killed a young man in a brawl in Rome. His fame and radicalism as an artist preceded him and he was quickly commissioned by a group of young, charity-minded noblemen for work at the Pio Monte della Misericordia church in the Centro Storico. The local worthies originally wanted a depiction of the Seven Works of Mercy — seven different acts of kindness from the Gospel of Matthew — on seven separate panels around the church. What they got was a single composition unlike any other painted before: a deeply religious painting embedded in a grim Naples alley scene, the combined figures emerging from the darkness.
Peter Robb, Caravaggio’s biographer, describes the painting above thus:
‘The take on I was a Stranger, and ye took me in was strictly commercial, a pilgrim being welcomed by a fleshy innkeeper with a boozer’s nose. I was naked and ye clothed me was Saint Martin as a supremely elegant young man, sadly sharing his cloak with a gauntly naked street person sitting in the dirt. I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat…I was in prison and ye came unto me became a daughter breastfeeding her old father through the prison bars, sullen and resentful at having to do this in public. I was thirsty and ye gave me drink ..looked like someone swigging from a wineskin. The corpse being carried bare feet first through the street was so common a sight that only the awkward daughter even looked around’.
Above a couple of angels look down on the alley, their ‘huge wings tangled on the drying sheets’, seeming as they are about to fall to earth. The electric, chaotic, threatening scene was and is instantly recognisable as a theatrical drama in the narrow streets of Naples.
Visiting the picture, one of three Caravaggio works left in the city, can be a bit hit or miss due to patchy opening hours but well worth the effort.