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The Corporal Works of Mercy – Visiting Prisoners

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

What goes through a prisoner’s mind, we can imagine: regrets, hatred, guilt, affections; but what went through St. Peter’s mind and heart while he was in prison, we could never imagine.

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Surely his faith in the help God could give him, through his friend-master Jesus, had never abandoned him, but to receive a visit from an angel, must have been wonderfully unexpected. This work of Mercy was recounted to us, though for different purposes, by Raphael Sanzio in the Vatican rooms. The work, in fact, is entitled the “Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison” and executed for the rooms of Heliodorus from 1513 to 1514 by Raphael already considered by the critics of his time to be “the Painter” that is, the one who paints by the grace of God, by natural gift and arrives at perfection. In the Vatican rooms a few meters from him, in the Sistine Chapel, worked Michelangelo, sincerely greatly admired by Raphael. But to Michelangelo’s torment, doubt and anguish, he opposes the harmony of the whole that comes from his own vision of an ordered world, built by God’s grace to which he acknowledges every success and to which he will always be serenely grateful.

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The space of the room made available to the author, is limited because it is interrupted by a window, but the author manages to arrange everything so architecturally perfect that we only perceive the beauty of the story (Acts Rev12:5-12). In the center of the composition, behind the bars, the strong light emitted by the angel, a sign of divine intervention, highlights the shine of the metallic armor of the sleeping soldiers. On the right protected by the angel, Peter with his face resigned and suffering from the harshness of the ordeal, sees the chains fall, passes between the guards sunk in an unnatural sleep, and moves toward freedom: it is the certainty of the miracle that has been accomplished. What makes this masterpiece so spectacular is the light that is multiplied in the various sections of the painting: from the cold white light of the quarter moon among the clouds, the reddish aurora of the horizon, the flashing of torches. These lights that pierce the darkness of the cell, the dazzling light of the angel, a sign that manifests God’s merciful power, and every superbly studied detail make the episode realistic, natural but above all moving.

wikipedia.orgOf a completely different caliber is the Portoferraio penal bath by Telemaco Signorini (1835/1901), a Tuscan Macchiaiolo, which takes us to see more prisoners lined up to pay their respects to a group of visitors, executed between 1893/1894, now in the Pitti Palace. These are arranged in two parallel, opposing rows as they make way for a small group of guards and leaders proud of their role. The chains on their wrists, the threadbare uniforms, the faces showing an obligatory submission and surrender, make strong the psychological discomfort of their condition. Signorini precisely to illustrate more realistically and truthfully the visit to the prisoners in Portoferraio, shows the “famous” Lucanian brigand Carmine Crocco in the front row among the inmates. The light helps increase that sense of drama, bringing the gaze back to the center of the empty room, to the subjects placed in perspective helpless and all the same. It thus comes to eliminate every detail that does not serve to render the sense of the inexorable condemnation that society, sometimes unjustly, has imposed on man.

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The situation of severe social, moral and physical hardship suffered for centuries by inmates in the penal baths, which were abolished by the Ricasoli Commission in 1862 and, in 1891 by the Honorable Zanardelli, as early as the 1500s was the subject of commitment by successive popes over the centuries. At the end of the 1500s, the pontiff resolved the establishment of a commissioner defending the rights of the imprisoned, ordering that there be guaranteed a minimum of spiritual assistance: “There be images of N. S. Jesus Christ and of the Most Glorious Virgin Mary and of the saints … checking that they confess and take communion … handing them a blessed crown” (V. Paglia 1980).

Selene PeraSignorini’s painting, no closer to the current situation in our more modern and permissive prisons, but the situation of the prisoner remains grave. Timothy Schmalz, a great contemporary artist, amazes with his plastic solutions that are a sign of admonition all over the world. In fact, the work of mercy of visiting prisoners has been synthesized by him in a sculpture that does not need the depiction of the human figure. The two arms that seem to flail outward, prevented in their movement by the strong bars, are more expressive of a face experiencing that drama. They are the weeping hands of Christ inviting for Mercy; it is a plea for help more eloquent than any words, aiming to move the hardness of hearts. Prisoners who often receive scornful criticism more times than not seek forgiveness, such as the prayer of a Regina Coeli-Rome inmate formulated in 1958 and quoted at the beginning of “THE CHURCH IN PRISON” book by Antonio Parente

“let the justice of men depend on Thy divine justice, and let the punishment we suffer be atonement for those faults which Thou alone knowest and from which Thou alone redeemest … Thou render us honor, Thou reknit the bonds of love, Thou comfort our loved ones, Thou hasten the day of our liberation.”

Quest’opera di misericordia, propostaci dalla Chiesa, è senz’altro una delle più difficili da attuare, ma, poiché le strade del Signore sono infinite, forse una strada che porta al carcere la possiamo trovare, soprattutto se ci facciamo aiutare dal cappellano preposto, per l’aiuto morale e spirituale di questi nostri sfortunati fratelli.

 

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