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‘Works of Mercy’ and ‘Acts of Mercy’ are phrases that are familiar to many from religious literature. The works or acts in question are described in the Bible (mainly Matthew 25: 35–40) as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and others. They are also the subject of a number of paintings, from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Many such paintings were created as incitements to acts of charity like those depicted. Others commemorate such acts already performed, for instance through the founding of almshouses. They represent what are now called social services, but at a time when such services originated from religious teachings – the doctrine of Christian charity – rather than being performed for secular reasons alone.

The Wellcome Library’s collections of paintings, drawings, prints and photographs were created to document a particular range of subjects in all places and at all times, and the ‘Works of Mercy’ is one of those subjects. The Library already had a number of pictures on this theme when it acquired in 2009 four large paintings called Acts of Mercy by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862–1927). Cayley Robinson's four paintings were originally commissioned to hang in the entrance hall of the Middlesex Hospital in London, where they inspired thousands of patients and staff members over the years. The Art UK database brings the Cayley Robinson pictures together not only with other Wellcome Library paintings but also with paintings on the same theme in other collections. Until the Art UK database became available, it was very difficult to discover what other paintings of a particular subject existed elsewhere.

One finds the name of the Antwerp painter Frans Francken II (1581–1642) associated with many of these paintings. A composition by him in which all the seven ‘Works of Mercy’ are represented in one scene seems to have been especially popular: Art UK reveals versions at Fairfax House in York, Manchester Art Gallery and the Wellcome Library. They all show on one side a man handing out loaves of bread, and a woman with a baby among the recipients. There are however many differences in detail between the three versions which would be worth studying and explaining. Such paintings could well have hung in a chapel, town hall or charitable institution as a reminder of the Christian message.

However it is another work associated with Francken that I was most interested to find in the Art UK database: a set of seven small paintings on copper set into a magnificent piece of furniture, the Chirk Cabinet, at Chirk Castle in Wrexham, Denbighshire. The paintings of the ‘Works of Mercy’ are revealed when the doors of the cabinet are opened.

Each of the seven paintings shows a separate ‘Work of Mercy’. Though I vaguely remembered the publicity around the cabinet’s acquisition by the National Trust 20 years ago, I had forgotten that the paintings show the ‘Works of Mercy’. It is understandable that paintings of this subject might have hung in a hospital (like the Cayley Robinson quartet) or an almshouse, but why would it be used in a cabinet luxuriously crafted from carved ebony with tortoise-shell inlays and wrought silver mounts? Surely the extravagant sums involved in its creation could have been better spent on charitable works themselves?

The answer may lie in the traditional provenance given to the Chirk Cabinet. It is reputed to have been given by King Charles II to Sir Thomas Myddelton (1586–1666) in 1661 in thanks for his role in the Restoration of the Monarchy. Surprising though it may be in retrospect, the future King Charles II had been on the receiving end of works of mercy. He had been a refugee in the English Civil War, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sums up his precarious life in France thus: ‘Charles and his court led a wretched existence of poverty and enforced idleness, relying on a pension the queen mother received from the French government, and occasional donations from supporters in England.’ While Charles himself was languishing in poverty and exile, and Britain was still a Commonwealth, Myddelton had risked all by declaring Charles king. What more suitable gift could there be to a man who had given such succour at a moment of need? 

William Schupbach, Librarian, Iconographic Collections, Wellcome Library