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The Corporal Works of Mercy – Dressing the Naked

The Works of Mercy recommended by the Church do not have priority over one another, but all are of equal importance

Everyone is a naked soul and feels the need to clothe oneself in a garment of respectability, of qualities appreciated by others, in order to give meaning to one’s life and concretely feel like something (Pirandello’s “Dressing the Undressed” play). This work of mercy has its roots in God’s act of covering the human nakedness of the progenitors after original sin. “The Lord God made man and woman tunics of skin and clothed them.” Embracing the limitations of frailty, from which bewilderment before the other arises, God promptly intervenes and addresses this painful problem. It is merciful love for his creatures that led him to remedy that shameful situation, in which our ancestors found themselves.


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In the 1626 painting, destined for the world’s most important exhibitions and Pinacotecas to be admired, Domenichino (1581/1641), a painter and architect, makes a panorama of the earthly paradise, where pristine nature still shows peace between lion and lamb. The figures of almost statuesque plastic relief are immersed in a scenic setting of great refinement. On the left corner Eve points to the serpent still crawling at her feet, while Adam carves off pointing to Eve; on the upper right God is surrounded by angels, just as the author had seen him in the Sistine Chapel, showing his admiration and homage to Michelangelo. God the Father’s face expresses compassion, tenderness, but his gesture expresses the terrible consequences of that disobedience and will cause him to make amends in the meantime by cladding them. The warm colors, the light coming from various sources highlighting the most significant details, makes the whole a fairy-tale, heavenly narrative of the biblical episode.


The act of clothing those in extreme poverty implies a caring for that person, restoring to them the sense of dignity that they had gradually lost through the sad events of their lives. It is from the 15th century that Francesco d’Antonio, Ghirlandaio’s collaborator, painted a fresco for the Ospizio dei Buonomini in Florence, where he depicts, in a structure of the time, a number of characters handing out clothing to the poor. What is striking in this work of muted colors is the humble respectful attitude of all the characters who, illuminated by a bright diffused light, are about to give and receive. It is a work that stands out for its descriptive simplicity, but it best expresses that the act of clothing those who are naked is not only about caring for the other person’s body, but restoring, at least partially, some strength, to help them psychologically and spiritually to move forward in society. This work of mercy made “famous,” in a sense, a 14th-century knight who later became a great saint: St. Martin of Tours, to whom Lucca dedicated a large church, consecrating it in 1070.

Cathedral of San Martino LuccaFrom the year 1000 onward, there is a beautiful flourishing of imposing cathedrals with rich sculptural decorations intended to illustrate the Christian message aimed at worship and meditation. According to worthy writers Lucca was one of the first cities in Tuscany to convert to Christianity and encouraged the flow of pilgrims who chose the Via Francigena to reach Rome. Stories of knights were told in various ways in the Middle Ages, and Martin was one of them, in fact he was part of the Roman imperial guard and ensured public order. During one of his patrols, in the harsh winter of 335, he encountered a half-naked beggar. The knights of the time, were obliged to return to the barracks with their cloaks at all costs, otherwise they would suffer heavy penalties. Therefore Martin, seeing the man in such pain, cut his cloak in two. In the night he dreamed of Jesus who said to him, Behold the unbaptized soldier who clothed me, and when he awoke he found his cloak intact. In Lucca on the beautiful facade of the cathedral, rests one of the most original plastic groups of the Italian Middle Ages: St. Martin and the Pauper from the 13th century. The exterior group is a copy of the original, attributed to Guido da Como, preserved inside the cathedral.


St. Martin of Tours inside the Cathedral of LuccaThe figure of the saint, with a handsome youthful face, seated on the back of the horse, is seen in the act of cutting his cloak. The poor man stretches out his bare arms to receive the soldier’s gift, while his legs, somewhat bent back, emphasize the attitude of a humble request. Everything is balanced, everything is sharply defined as the folds of the robes and mantle remove any sense of static and allow light to form harmonious chiaroscuro vibrations. Even the sword, placed horizontally by the author, loses its deadly value and lightly touches the poor man’s shoulder, as if to establish a friendly union. Even the horse’s head, proud and jerky, gains significance and seems to turn toward the poor man, as if understanding the action that is about to take place. The lesson from this story is as relevant as ever in our time, for never before have we had such a large number of refugees in need of so much clothing as in recent years. Therefore, Christians, in their works of charity toward those in misery, must become aware that they are a reflection and witness to God’s mercy. On the other hand, in our homes we have closets filled with everything that is part of clothing and we have no difficulty in getting rid of it. Always, however, we must perform this act of mercy with that love and respect that comes from the awareness that in the other we have clothed Jesus: I was naked and you clothed me (Mt 25:36).



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