pauper infirmus …

Master of Alkmaar (16th century) - To feed the hungry, particular from The seven acts of charity, 1505. Oil on panel, 101 x 54 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In the Middle Ages, the figure of the sick man identifies the poor, the outcast and the man in need. Disease is the feature of a particular social class and therapy coincides with assistance to the poor, and with the charitable care of poverty. Poverty itself is defined “morborum genitrix (the mother of diseases)” and the sick man is mainly a poor man: pauper infirmus.The  meanings of the words poor and sick become interchangeable: both are equally used as a name or as an attribute. A poor sick man is a man who suffers, in the form of a disease, for life’s  precariousness. A sick poor man is a man who is indigent, and experiences how much harder the disease can become if suffered in deep poverty.  Before the 19th century, medical knowledge recognized only a few chronical diseases: motor disability, blindness, and congenital deformities. These diseases are represented in works of art. They remind us, synthetically and effectively, of evangelical infirmities, and the charitable assistance performed by the saints becomes an example for all Christians.
Portraying the poor always includes the representation of sick men, in this painting as in many other examples (for further documentation, see Curare e Guarire, Occhio artistico e occhio clinico, Edizioni Morales). This panel is part of a series of seven tables painted for the Dutch city of Alkmaar. The artist places each one of the evangelical seven Acts of Mercy in the city environment, describing the local architecture and working activities. The attention to everyday’s life details, which is typical of Northern Europe artists, introduces the charitable act inside a honest laboriousness: the attention to the poor and to the sick becomes, therefore, a civil virtue.