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Anthony van Dyck, Charity

Key facts
Full title Charity
Artist Anthony van Dyck
Artist dates 1599 - 1641
Date made about 1627-8
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 148.2 × 107.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1984
Inventory number NG6494
Location Room 20
Collection Main Collection
Anthony van Dyck

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul outlines the importance of faith, hope and charity, naming charity as the greatest of the three. At the time this picture was painted, charity meant combining the love of god with love of one’s neighbour.

From the sixteenth century onward, charity was often represented as a woman, shown breastfeeding a child or children; Van Dyck instead shows three infants clinging to her. She is celestial Charity and her upward glance links her to heaven – the source of her strength as she struggles to fulfil others' needs. The cloak billowing behind her is painted in shades of ultramarine, the traditional colour of the Virgin Mary.

Van Dyck produced this shortly after his return from a long stay in Venice, where he was influenced by the works of Titian. The rich colours of the artist are evident in the lustrous drapery, although it’s thought that these have changed over time and were once a little more subdued.

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