In one of Shakespeare’s most known and loved passages, the young heroine, Portia, urges Shylock, the moneylender, to show the kind of mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” that “is enthroned in the hearts of kings,” and “is an attribute to God Himself.”(1) This arresting image of mercy is both noble and other-worldly, rousing images like that of Caravaggio’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” in which an angel’s outstretched hand reaches over seven scenes of mercy: burying the dead, feeding the hungry, refreshing the thirsty, harboring the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and ministering to prisoners. The seven scenes are based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35-36: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Though Jesus does not specifically reference burial of the dead as an act of mercy, it was deemed merciful by the church during the time of plague, when care of the dead was literally care of one’s neighbors.
Similar depictions of sympathy, provision, and kind leniency often come to mind at the mere thought of mercy wherever it is found. As Caravaggio paints it and Shakespeare depicts it, mercy is beautiful. Images of quiet humanitarianism and heavenly acts of concern afford mercy a reputation worthy of Portia’s words.