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Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:

Frequently Asked Questions: Seven Corporal Works of Mercy


1. What are the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy?

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are:

  1. Feed the hungry
  2. Give drink to the thirsty
  3. Welcome the stranger
  4. Clothe the naked
  5. Visit the sick
  6. Visit the prisoner
  7. Bury the dead.

The first six of these are listed in the Biblical parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25 vv.31-46). They are the criteria by which Christ will judge people. Those who have done these good deeds will go to Heaven: those who have failed to do them will end up in the fires of Hell. As early as the third century the additional deed, Burying the Dead, was added to bring the number up to seven (Kirschbaum (1968), I, 246). The burial of the dead was chosen for inclusion because it is highly praised in the Book of Tobit (Tobit 1, vv. 17-19). The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy should not be confused with the Seven Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence). These are abstract qualities, while the Works, as their name suggests, are active.

2. Why were they called 'Corporal'?

They were practical deeds aimed at relieving bodily distress. A comparable list of spiritual works was developed. This was especially appropriate for cleric and professed religious. The Spiritual Works of Mercy were:

  1. To teach the ignorant
  2. To counsel the needy
  3. To chastise the sinful
  4. To comfort the sorrowful
  5. To forgive enemies
  6. To suffer tribulation
  7. To pray for all fervently

(This list is taken from a fifteenth-century catechism in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 549 (Russell (1962-3), 115).

3. Why did people need to know about them?

It was obviously important to know the details of the good deeds that would merit a place in Heaven. A fourteenth-century text, known as Dan Jon Gaytrygge's Sermon, associated with the Constitutions issued by Archbishop Thoresby for the Diocese of York in 1357, is one of many texts to liken the Day of Judgement to an examination on the practical aspects of the Works of Mercy.

'The ferthe thynge of the sex to knawe Godds Almyghty, that us byhoues fulfill in all that we maye, ere the seven dedis of mercy untill oure even cristen, that Godd sall reherse us apon the dredful day of dome and wiet have we done tham here in this lyfe'

(Perry (1867), 9).

Although they were less directly connected to the practice of penance than the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of the Works could be used to confess sins of omission. The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were included in the 1281 Lambeth Constitutions which set out the syllabus to be taught to the laity in the Archdiocese of Canterbury (Powicke and Cheney (1964), II, 904).

Teaching about the Works of Mercy also highlights the important role accorded to charitable deeds in the late medieval church. From the twelfth century onwards the dissemination of the doctrine of Purgatory seems to have shifted concern from eternal damnation, which could be avoided by the confession of sins, to the pains of Purgatory. Purgatory was not eternal, but it was portrayed as equally painful. Deeds of charity performed in life or on behalf of the dead had the power to speed the soul through Purgatory. The recipients of charity had a moral obligation to pray for those who had helped them. God favoured the poor, and those who were wealthy were expected to spend their money in recruiting these supernatural advocates. The preacher John Mirk warned his congregations about the role of the poor at the Day of Judgement:

'Thys, good men, ye shull know well that yn the day of dome pore men schull be domes-men wyth Cryst and dome the ryche'.

(Erbe (1905), 4).

Souls in Purgatory plead for help from the living. North wall, Swanbourne, Buckinghamshire


4. When did they start to appear in wall painting?

Early examples of the Seven Corporal Works are found in wall painting at about the same time as the Seven Deadly Sins appear. Probably the earliest British reference is found in a manuscript of the early fourteenth century recording the inscriptions which accompanied works of art in Bury St Edmund's Abbey in Suffolk (Tristram (1950), 517).

In the established tradition of manuscript illumination, the Seven Virtues were frequently shown as the opposites of the Sins, but the subject was rare in British wall painting. Only in the scheme of c1340 at Cranborne in Dorset is what appears to be a Tree of the Virtues shown alongside the Tree of Sins. This contrasts with France where, in the fifteenth century, paintings contrasting the Seven Deadly Sins, usually shown mounted on animals, with pious figures of the Seven Virtues, became popular (Vincent-Cassy (1990), 473-81). The implications of the pairing of Sins and Works found in England is explored further in Imperfect Parallels.

Part of one of the earliest known depictions of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy of c.1320-40 at Kimpton in Bedfordshire (now covered over)

(Anon (1865), 167).

5. Where did the painters get their ideas?

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are first found in manuscript illumination in the twelfth-century. Their Biblical origins meant that they were often depicted in the context of the Last Judgement. Like the Seven Deadly Sins they were also depicted in didactic diagrams, such as the Wheel of Sevens, which combined Seven different lists of Seven. The dissemination of these images from monastic manuscript to parish wall follows a similar pattern to that described above (see also Schema).

6. Who commisioned them?

Unfortunately the surviving evidence is scanty. No wills or churchwardens' accounts relating to the paintings in this database have yet been identified. None of the paintings include the figures of donors, although the murals at Trotton are part of a larger scheme in which the kneeling figures of Sir Thomas Camoys (d.1421) and his son Richard and wife Joan are shown.

Most of the other paintings at Trotton are heraldic and chivalric images, celebrating the lineage, achievements and connections of the Camoys family. Even in an instance like this, we do not know who actually chose the morality subjects. Perhaps the Camoys family felt the need to contrast the proud chivalric images with paintings condemning sin and encouraging virtue, or perhaps the local parish priest insisted on a more balanced scheme. At Arundel the paintings follow the rebuilding of the church by Thomas Fitzalan (5th Earl of Arundel), and at Milton Abbas they are associated with the remodelling carried out by Abbot Middleton (1481-1525). However, we do not know to what extent these individuals were personally involved in selecting subjects for display.

Late medieval wills suggest that lay patrons felt a degree of freedom in selecting images for their churches, but the informal negotiation which may have gone on between priests, churchwardens and individuals has left no record. In some instances it is clear that congregations regarded their priest as a source of advice about the selection of images (Duffy (1989), 160). In other instances, such as the early fifteenth-century eucharistic wall paintings at Friskney in Lincolnshire, the scheme may have been devised by the scholarly clerical donor to educate the congregation (Rubin (1991), 131).

7. Why 7?

The addition of a seventh deed to the Biblical list of six is described above. The need to supply a seventh deed relates to the perceived mystical significance of the number seven. After three, seven is the number of greatest religious significance in ancient Judaism (Kirschbaum (1972), IV, 154). God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, hallowing it. The number seven consequently had connotations of completeness or perfection. It was also significant in the Ancient World, associated with the seven planets, the seven ages of man and the Seven Wonders of the World. Given its prominence in Jewish and Antique thought, it is not surprising that it retained its significance in the early Church (Kirschbaum (1972), IV, 154-5).

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Last updated: 20/12/2001
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