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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Each of the cardinal virtues had an independent life
in art, separate from the other three. In antiquity,
justice and wisdom were most often represented, espe-
cially in Greco-Roman coinage. In the early Middle
Ages and at the beginning of the Renaissance certain
aspects of temperance were prominent in popular
iconographic cycles: Pudicitia and Sobrietas among the
victorious virtues in the Psychomachia of Prudentius
(A.D. 410), and Chastity (Pudicizia) among the Trionfi
of Petrarch, which began to adorn Italian coffers (cas-
) around the middle of the fifteenth century. Tem-
perance, chastity, and sobriety were among the so-
called “Gift-virtues,” derived from the Gifts of the Holy
Spirit in Isaiah 11:2; these have a long history in art.
The following discussion, however, will confine itself
for the most part to instances in which the cardinal
virtues appear as a group, with only occasional refer-
ences to separate representations of temperance.

Late antiquity may now and then ahve seen the Stoic
tetrad portrayed together, but no example has survived,
and properly speaking the iconography of the cardinal
virtues begins in the Carolingian period. A poem by
Theodulf of Orleans purports to describe a plaque in
the Palace at Aachen, which showed a tree rooted in
a globe and bearing on its branches personifications
of the cardinal virtues and the liberal arts. The virtues
are identified by an elaborate set of attributes, Pru-
by a book, Vis (Fortitudo) by a dagger, a shield,
and a helmet, Iustitia by a sword, a palm-branch, a
set of balances, and a crown, and Moderatio (Tem-
) by a bridle and a scourge (Dümmler I, 46).
The virtues as they actually appear in miniatures of
the ninth century are more modestly equipped. They
usually adorn the title pages of Gospel-books or other
liturgical texts, and they are normally placed in the
four corners of the page, enclosed in medallions, while
the center is occupied by the Frankish king or the
biblical David, the model for Carolingian rulers. In
the earliest extant example, the Vivian Bible (843-51),
all four virtues are half-figures (two male, two female),
holding palm branches and stretching out their hands
towards the central figure, King David. In other manu-
scripts of the ninth century Prudentia invariably holds
a book, Fortitudo arms and armor, Iustitia a set of
scales, and Temperantia a torch and jug (Figure 1).
They are never accompanied by accessory virtues or
opposing vices. Their portrayal is static, entirely lack-
ing in the drama of the psychomachia, the combat
between virtues and vices popularized since the fifth
century by the manuscripts of Prudentius.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries several inno-
vations occur. The virtues are illustrated in important
devotional treatises and theological tracts, as well as
deluxe Gospel-books, sacramentaries, lectionaries, and
the like. They also appear on an infinite variety of small
objects, usually religious in nature: portable altars,
shrines, reliquaries, tabernacles, book-covers, candle-
sticks, and fonts (Katzenellenbogen, 1964). New sym-
bolic objects and animals are now added to the reper-
tory of the artist in France, Germany, and the Low
Countries. Prudence may have a serpent or a dove;
Fortitude may tear apart the jaws of a lion; Justice
may hold a sword, a plumbline, or a set square; and


Temperance may have a spray of flowers, a sheathed
sword, or (most often) two vessels, with which she
mixes water and wine, a visual reminder of the root-
meaning of temperare. In Mosan art she is sometimes
identified by a bridle (Tervarent, 1964), but in spite
of Theodulf's poem, this is the rarest of her attributes,
until it is revived by Giotto early in the fourteenth
century and popularized by Raphael in the sixteenth.

Literary sources are responsible for much of the
interest in the virtues and many of the ways in which
they are depicted. The theory of the macrocosm and
the microcosm, set forth in Radulphus Glaber's Historia
sui temporis
(1059) inspired the equation of many
tetrads—the cardinal virtues, the Rivers of Paradise,
the Evangelists, the Latin Fathers, the Seasons. Mysti-
cal interpretations of the number four go back at least
to the Neo-Pythagoreans, and Philo Judaeus, imitated
by Ambrose and Augustine, had long ago identified the
Rivers of Paradise with the Stoic virtues. In the twelfth
century and thereafter parallel groups of seven at-
tracted attention, under the influence of such works
as Hugh of St. Victor's De quinque septenis, Pseudo-
Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum morale, and the
Summa of Saint Thomas. Now the three Pauline virtues
(faith, hope, and charity) are added to the Platonic
quartet, and the resulting seven virtues are linked with
other sevens: vices or deadly sins, Sacraments, Gifts
of the Holy Spirit, the derived “Gift-virtues,” and the
seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer. The most effective
way of illustrating the relation among the virtues was
the Tree, the arbor bona rooted in humility and bearing
among its branches the seven virtues. This device,
which goes back at least to Saint Augustine, was popu-
larized by the treatise De fructu spiritus et carnis
ascribed to Hugh of Saint Victor and by illustrations
to such widely-read works as the Speculum virginum
usually attributed to Conrad of Hirzau, Lambert's Liber
and Herrad of Landsberg's Hortus deliciarum.
Miniatures in French manuscripts of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, especially Books of Hours, de-
velop the iconography of the cardinal virtues, some-
times alone, sometimes in relation to the other sevens.

The most influential such book was Somme le Roi,
compiled in 1279 for King Philip of France, and illus-
trated by a comprehensive set of pictures reproduced
in many manuscripts. One page, in a manuscript of
1295, devoted to the cardinal virtues, shows two of
them in action: Prudentia teaching three pupils, Tem-
perantia advising a woman at table to refuse a
proffered goblet, and two in heraldic fashion: Fortitudo
holding a disk with a symbolic bird, and Iustitia with
a sword and scales (Figure 2). A century later the
derivative Belleville Breviary combines seven virtues,
seven Sacraments, and seven vices in an intricate icono-
graphical scheme which sets side by side the cardinal
virtues as portrayed in the Somme le Roi manuscripts
and the “Gift-virtues” in the same source. Thus the
illustration devoted to the Sacrament of Marriage in-
cludes the scene of Temperance at table from the
cardinal virtue page, and also a picture of Judith de-
capitating Holofernes, which in Somme le Roi had
exemplified the vice of lechery and drunkenness, op-
posed to the “Gift-virtue” of Chastity (Godwin, 1951).
Chastity herself was portrayed in Somme le Roi as a
woman standing on a pig and holding a disk inscribed
with a dove.

The tradition of the Psychomachia had little effect
on the iconography of the cardinal virtues until the
thirteenth century, when they began to be portrayed,
not in combat with the vices, but in triumph over them.


The vices may be represented by personifications trod-
den underfoot, symbolic animals ridden by the virtues,
historical exemplars seated at the feet of the virtues,
or genre-scenes suggesting the vices in action. A series
of thirteenth-century reliefs on the portals of Gothic
cathedrals (Paris, Chartres, Amiens, Reims) shows
twelve virtues as seated, feminine figures, each identi-
fied by the symbolic animal, bird, or plant on the disk
she holds; underneath, a genre-scene suggests the op-
posing vice (Katzenellenbogen, 1964). The twelve vir-
tues include two of the cardinal tetrad (Prudence and
Fortitude) and subdivisions of the other two, according
to the well-known Ciceronian and Macrobian lists
(Chastity for Temperance, Obedience for Justice; see
Tuve, 1963). The North Porch at Chartres, however,
presents a different series of triumphant virtues, this
time the group of eight comprising humility plus the
theological and cardinal virtues. Although their tri-
umph is portrayed in the older, Romanesque style
(standing figures holding symbolic objects and tram-
pling underfoot personified vices) the number eight and
some of the attributes point towards the future, espe-
cially the Italian virtue-cycles of the fourteenth cen-
tury. Thus the vice opposed to Temperance in this
series is Wrath tearing her garments, just as in Giotto's
fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, possibly in-
spired by the North Porch at Chartres.

Previous to Giotto, the cardinal virtues had been
depicted only rarely in Italian art, although Roman-
esque mosaic pavements in Pavia and Cremona show
scenes of the psychomachia involving other sets of
virtues. Very nearly unique is a portrayal of the cardi-
nal virtues through genre-scenes, in the choir mosaics
of San Savino in Piacenza (1107), where a duel suggests
Fortitude; a king pronouncing judgment, Justice; a
game of chess, Prudence; and a scene of revelry, Tem-
perance. The mosaic in the Cupola of the Ascension
in St. Mark's, Venice, dating from ca. 1200, includes
the cardinal virtues in a group of sixteen, which reflect
the influence of Byzantine processional scenes by way
of Ravenna. The cardinal virtues display attributes
popular in twelfth-century French manuscripts: Pru-
dence. two serpents; Justice, scales; Fortitude, a lion
whose jaws she tears apart; and Temperance, a pitcher
from which she pours water into a bowl (Figure 3).

Giotto's sequence of eight virtues and eight vices
(ranged along opposite walls in the Scrovegni Chapel,
1306) popularized one hitherto rare attribute of Tem-
perance, the sheathed sword, which thereafter ap-
peared in several Florentine and Neapolitan reliefs and
statues. In the fourteenth century Italy takes the lead
from France, not so much in devising new ways to
represent the virtues as in finding new contexts in
which to display them. The religious ambience is still
important; the tetrad (with or without the Pauline
virtues) adorns chapels (such as the Spanish Chapel in
Santa Maria Novella, Florence), pulpits (those of the
Pisani in Pisa and Siena, some of which antedate the
fourteenth century), baptisteries (Florence, Bergamo),
campaniles (Florence), tabernacles (Or San Michele,
Florence), and tombs (Saint Peter Martyr in Milan,
Saint Augustine in Pavia), but now they also appear
in places of civic and secular importance, a return to
the political significance that the virtues had enjoyed
from the time of their origin in the fifth-century Greek
city-states. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
conditions in the Italian cities were ripe for the revival
of the virtues as aretai politikai, and we find, especially
in Florence, the most Athenian of the communes, many
examples of their display in public places.

They adorn the Loggia dei Lanzi and the seven
panels painted by the Pollaiuoli and Botticelli for the
Mercanzia, and they accompanied the personified
Commune in Giotto's lost fresco for the Palace of the
Podestà. In Venice the capitals of the columns of the
Doges' Palace were adorned with the seven virtues,


and the Porta della Carta was flanked by statues of
Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Charity. In
Perugia the Collegio del Cambio set the cardinal vir-
tues in a wholly secular environment. In Siena the
frescoes of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio
Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico constitute the most
complex and original of the political cycles involving
the virtues and vices. In the Fresco of Good Govern-
ment the personified Commune sits in the midst of six
virtues, the cardinal four augmented by Pax and Mag-
while the theological virtues hover over-
head. Temperance holds an hourglass (one of the earli-
est examples of this attribute); Justice holds an upright
sword, a crown, and a severed head; Fortitude has a
sword; Prudence points to an inscription.

In addition to this rebirth of their civic importance,
the following are the most significant tendencies in the
iconography of the cardinal virtues in fourteenth- and
fifteenth-century Italy:

1. The integration of these virtues into great sum-
of human life, like that on the campanile in
Florence, with its reliefs of seven virtues, seven planets,
liberal arts, mechanical arts, and Sacraments, or Andrea
da Firenze's Triumph of Saint Thomas in the Spanish
Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, where the saint sits
enthroned between saints and doctors of the church,
with winged figures of the cardinal and theological
virtues hovering above his head and defeated heretics
crouched at his feet; in the lower register are personifi-
cations of the liberal arts and sciences, at whose feet
in turn sit their historical exemplars.

2. The use of the virtues in funerary sculpture, at
first for saints, popes, and bishops, then (in Naples) for
royalty, and finally for laymen of less exalted rank.

3. The appearance of typical figures, biblical or
historical, to represent virtues as well as vices.

Among the symbols and attributes popularized at
this stage, and carried from Italy north into France,
England (where the virtues are always rare), and the
Low Countries, those of Prudence and Temperance are
the more diverse. Justice and Fortitude show fewer
innovations, although it is at this time that the column
(recalling Samson and representing strength) becomes
a popular attribute of Fortitude. Prudence now often
carries a mirror, sometimes entwined by a serpent, and
she usually has at least two faces, sometimes three,
representing her attention to the past and the future,
as well as the present. Temperance may now have a
bridle (she wears the bit in her mouth in the Scrovegni
Chapel) or a sheathed sword (also Giottesque), or an
hourglass (a pun on tempus). She may even take the


form of an ancient Venus Pudica, entirely nude, as on
Giovanni Pisano's pulpit in the Duomo in Pisa (ca.
1310), or of a very lightly clad, classical Diana, as on
the tomb of Pius II, now in Sant' Andrea della Valle
in Rome (ca. 1473).

In France the virtues are not associated with sepul-
chral ornament in the fourteenth and fifteenth cen-
turies, but early in the sixteenth are introduced into
this context by Italian sculptors, who usually employ
the attributes conventional in Italy. Suddenly, however,
French sculptors, such as Michel Colombe, adorn with
highly original types and emblems of the virtues the
tombs of the Duke of Brittany in Nantes (1507) and
the Cardinals d'Amboise in Rouen (1515). Prudence
now holds a compass, as well as a mirror; Fortitude
holds a tower from which emerges a dragon, whose
neck she grasps; Temperance has a clock as well as
a bridle, and only Justice, with scales and sword, is
identical with her Italian counterpart. These attributes
(the “new” or “Rouen” iconography) are simplified
versions of an even more bizarre set that (see Tuve,
1963) probably originated among manuscript illumi-
nators patronized by the Dukes of Burgundy, as early
as 1410. They appear in the famous Rouen manuscript
of a French translation of Aristotle's Ethics (Bibl.
munic. MS 927), about 1454, and in various treatises
of the “advice to princes” type, usually involving
adaptations of the Ciceronian doctrine of the cardinal
virtues. In such illustrations Temperance has not only
the bridle and the clock (the bit worn in her mouth
and the clock on her head), but also a pair of spectacles
in one hand, spurs on her shoes, and a windmill on
which she rests her feet. The other virtues have corre-
spondingly elaborate attributes (Figure 5), explained
in a set of verses that accompany the pictures in a
manuscript (ca. 1470) of a French translation of Martin
of Braga's Formula vitae honestae (Tuve, 1966).

Although in pagan antiquity certain mythical and
historical figures were customarily linked with partic-
ular virtues, and Philo and the Church Fathers re-
garded various persons from the Old Testament or the
New as types of virtue or vice, systematic correlations
in early medieval art were limited to a small group
(Samson as a type of fortitude, Judith, Susanna, or
Joseph in Egypt as types of chastity and temperance).
Typical figures were assigned to the liberal arts much
earlier than to the virtues (Chartres in the thirteenth
century, the Spanish Chapel in the fourteenth), and,
by the fourteenth century, the personified vices tram-
pled underfoot in Romanesque versions of the psy-
chomachia had given way to historical exemplars,
sometimes trampled, sometimes merely sitting in defeat
before the personified virtue. In a series of miniatures
from the early and middle years of the fourteenth
century, linked in some way to Giusto Menabuoi's lost
frescoes in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua, the
typical figure defeated by Temperance is likely to be
Epicurus, but may be Tarquin. Prudence usually tri-
umphs over Sardanapalus, Justice over Nero, and For-
titude over Holofernes. The subject provided a popular
theme for pageants and tapestries in the sixteenth

Not until the fifteenth century are typical figures,
whether historical or biblical, associated with the car-
dinal virtues, sometimes in conjunction with a similar
treatment of the liberal arts. Thus Pesellino's two
panels (ca. 1460) now in Birmingham, Alabama, show
the liberal arts with their champions seated at their
feet and the seven virtues in the same position with
theirs: Faith, Charity, and Hope (with Saint Peter,
Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint James Major) are



flanked by Prudence and Justice on one side, Fortitude
and Temperance on the other. At the feet of the cardi-
nal virtues sit Solon, Solomon, Samson, and Scipio
Africanus (Figure 6). A more elaborate iconography
dominates Perugino's series in the Collegio del Cambio
in Perugia towards the end of the fifteenth century:
each of the (seated) personified virtues is identified by
familiar attributes and an explanatory inscription,
while below her stand three historical representatives,
two Roman, one Greek. With Justice are associated
Camillus, Pittacus, and Trajan, with Prudence, Quintus
Fabius Maximus, Socrates, and Numa Pompilius, with
Fortitude, Lucius Sicinnius, Leonidas, and Horatius
Cocles, and with Temperance, Scipio Africanus, Peri-
cles, and Cincinnatus.

Symbolic animals, birds, and even fish were linked
with virtues and vices in ancient literature (Aristotle,
the Neo-Platonists, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder in partic-
ular), and this tradition, augmented by the writings of
the Fathers (especially commentaries on the Hex-
) and popularized by the Physiologus and the
Bestiary, flourished in the Middle Ages. At first, in both
literature and art, animals more often represented vices
than virtues, and it was natural for a virtue to be shown
riding or standing on a beast symbolic of the vice she
overcame, as Chastity in the 1295 manuscript of
Somme le Roi stood on a pig, symbol of lechery. It
will be recalled that she held a disk or shield with a
picture of a dove (the turtledove symbolizes chastity
in Aristotle's History of Animals); this emblematic or
heraldic association of animals with virtues is familiar
from the early thirteenth century on the Gothic cathe-
drals. In the revival of the motif of the psychomachia
that occurs in the fifteenth century personified virtues
sometimes ride on animals that symbolize their own
characteristics, rather than the opposed vices.

In the sixteenth century the emblem books intro-
duced a host of new symbolic animals into the company
of the virtues. Thus Chastity riding an elephant fights
with Lechery on the familiar pig in an engraving cited
by Tervarent. The popularity of the emblem books,
from the middle of the sixteenth century until the
eighteenth, gave to the iconography of the cardinal
virtues a last injection of new life. The earliest emblem
book, that of Alciati (1531), drew upon the Hiero-
of Horapollo, dating perhaps from the fifth
century in Alexandria and published by the Aldine
Press in 1505; it was followed by the Hieroglyphica
of Valeriani in 1556 and, most influential of all, the
Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, first published in 1593 with-
out illustrations, then in illustrated editions from 1603
to the final, five-volume production in Perugia,
1764-67. Ripa's Iconologia was the great source book
for baroque artists, some of whose works—like the
stuccoes of Serpotta in Palermo—would be impossible
to interpret without the help of the emblem books.

An early reflection of Ripa's advice on how to depict
the cardinal virtues is the Sala Clementina in the
Vatican, painted by the Alberti brothers. An elaborate
example is Gaulli's set of virtues on the cupola of Sant'
Agnese in the Piazza Navona, 1667-71 (Figure 7).

Among the more abstruse emblems connected with
the cardinal virtues by Ripa and his followers are the
ostrich, which symbolizes Justice because its feathers
are all of equal length, the deer, linked with Prudence
because it ruminates like a sage, and the diamond,
symbol of Fortitude because of its adamantine hard-
ness. Temperance received a great variety of new
emblems, including a pair of red-hot tongs and a bowl
of water in which to temper them. Giuseppe Raffaelli
depicted her with precisely these attributes in his statue
for the ambulacrum of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Drawing upon many ancient and medieval sources,
including the epigrams in the Greek Anthology and the
Bestiary, the emblem books ascribe to each of the
virtues both animal and vegetable symbols.

After the close of the eighteenth century the vogue
for personified abstractions perished, along with the


taste for allegory and the wit that delights in learned
and allusive jests, such as inspired the ceiling of the
Camera di San Paolo in Parma (Panofsky, 1951). Even
in Rome the nineteenth and twentieth centuries pro-
duced few additions to the historic iconography of the
cardinal virtues, if we except the Torlonia Chapel in
the Lateran Basilica and the four busts over the main
portal of the Ministry of Grace and Justice on the Via
Arenula. Yet for a thousand years the iconography of
the cardinal virtues has provided an accurate indication
of the ebb and flow of interest in Platonic-Stoic ethics,
and of the impact made at various times, in various
places, by new interpretations of the virtues, their
relation to one another and to other “value-systems,”
and their importance for the religious, social, political,
and personal life of Western man. It is undoubtedly
significant that in our own time the cycle of Seven
Deadly Sins executed by Sidney Waugh for Steuben
Glass has never been balanced by a series of cardinal
and theological virtues, as it surely would have been
in thirteenth-century France or fourteenth-century