Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part IX


…Planets…Days of the Week…Of Creation…Canonical Hours…Gifts of the Spirit…Ages of the World…Of Man’s Life…

Seven is another number of totality and completion. It is, pre-eminently, the number of time, there being Seven Days of the Week, each of which is named after the seven Olympian deities who are the inhabiting Intelligences of the planetary spheres (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), by whose rotation, as Plato observes in the Timaeus, time is marked. (For mnemonic purposes, French is preferable to English in identifying the planets with the Days of the Week, save that in that language the last day of the week, the Day of the Sun, has been piously changed to the Day of the Lord – which merely confirms, however, that the Christian God was but the latest of the solar deities to rise and shine his redemptive light upon the ancient world.)

By creating the world within the seven-day week, in fact, God gave man the key to the whole mystery of existence. The Church celebrates the majesty of the seven-day Creation when she sings the Creator’s praises seven times a day, during the canonical hours: Mattins (or Lauds), Prime, Sext, Terce, None, Vespers, and Compline.

In his twelfth-century encyclopedia, De Natura Rerum, Alexander Neckham demonstrates the correspondence in turn between the Seven Days of Creation, the seven planets, and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit as enumerated in Is. 11:2: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom (sapientia), and understanding (intellectus), the spirit of counsel (consilium) and fortitude (fortitude), the spirit of knowledge (scientia), and piety (pietas). And the spirit will fill him with the fear of the lord (timor Domini).” In Neckham’s scheme, Saturn, the oldest of the planets, is Wisdom, the greatest of the Seven Gifts; Jupiter, the universal ruler, is Intelligence or Understanding; Mars, god of war, is Counsel; the Sun, Fortitude; Venus, Knowledge; Mercury, Piety; and the Moon, Fear of the Lord.

Extending the analogy in the Convivio, Dante draws a parallel between the seven planets and the Seven Liberal Arts – on which more in due course –, Grammar corresponding to the Moon, Mercury, to Dialectic, Venus, to Rhetoric, the Sun, to Arithmetic, Mars, to Music, Jupiter, to Geometry, and Saturn, to Astronomy. Both Neckham’s and Dante’s parallels are justified at the expense of a laborious deal of scholarly allusion and specious interpretation, and are based ultimately and arbitrarily on the traditional order in which the planets, Gifts of the Spirit, and Arts are listed; but they illustrate, once again, that characteristically medieval and pre-modern taste for hierarchy and symmetry.

If the universe was created in seven days, there must also be Seven Ages of the World. I’ve already referred to the topos of the Six Ages of World History, from Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to David, David to the Captivity, the Captivity to the Birth of Christ, and from the Nativity to the Second Coming. The Seventh Age is the Age of the Last Times: of the Apocalypse, General Resurrection, Final Judgment, and dissolution of the created order. It is the historical Sabbath, when the God of History rests, and the whole historical process comes to an end, in preparation, that is, for the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, which is the Eighth Age, the age of the Octave of rebirth unto eternity.

But I don’t want to get one number ahead of myself.

Seven Days of Creation, Seven Days of the Week, Seven Ages of History. Inevitably, then, Seven Ages of the Life of Man. The topos of the Ages of Man is, like that of the Ages of the World, what one might call numerically flexible. There can be any number of divisions, from three to eight, and in the case of the stages of life, nine, ten, and even twelve. But owing to the mystical significance of Seven, it is by far the most common.

Everyone is familiar with the topos – actually two topoi, since there is a theatrical conceit in there as well – from Jaques’ famous set-speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It II, vii:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the learn and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his beg manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans tastes, sans everything.

Critics have detected behind Shakespeare’s schema the influence of a long tradition that equates the Seven Ages with the planets, once again. The “infant mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” reminds us that the Moon, the lowest of the planets, is the patroness of motherhood and childbirth. Shakespeare’s schoolboy evokes the next sphere, that of Mercury, who is the god of learning. (Mercury/Hermes is, of course, the patron of knowledge, of language, and literary interpretation – whence, “hermeneutics” –, and as we will see in a moment, the appropriate husband of Philologia, whose dowry is the Seven Liberal Arts.) Shakespeare’s “lover sighing like furnace” and singing his amorous ditties to his mistress’ eyebrow is surely under the influence of Venus, the goddess of the third planetary sphere. His representative of the fourth age, the soldier, is Mars’ man. His reverend Justice continues the astronomical analogy, since Jupiter is the god of justice. Shakespeare’s Sixth Age, symbolized by the shrunken old man, figures Saturn, the oldest and coldest of the planets (indeed, his “hose a world too wide” and “pouch on side” are conventional attributes of Saturn and the Melancholy his influence induces). Shakespeare’s last Age, Second Childhood, brings us back to the Moon again. The scheme, as we see, omits the Sun, for reasons that remain unclear, since in most representations of the Seven Ages he appears in his proper position.

One of the most elaborate inflections of the theme is that of the famous Renaissance artist and art historian, Giorgio Vasari, in his description of the iconographical program of a fresco, now destroyed by rain and weather, which he painted – rather incautiously, it seems – on the exterior of a house in Florence in 1554. Vasari aligns each Age not only with a planet, but sometimes as well with one of the Seven Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Seven Liberal Arts.

I summarize Vasari’s description as follows:

1. Infancy is represented by a woman in childbed, with nurses about. In the night sky the Moon, in the person of the goddess Diana, watches over mother and child. Her infants are suckled by a personification of the virtue Charity, who was indeed typically represented in this posture for obvious reasons. A personification of Grammar, the first of the Seven Liberal Arts, teaches the children to read.

2. Boyhood shows children at play and others going to school. Mercury carries his caduceus. Another of the theological virtues, Faith, baptizes a boy. Dialectic, the second of the Seven Liberal Arts, wears a veil and holds the serpent of wisdom.

3. Adolescence shows two youths, one climbing a mountain, the other lingering behind, lured by Fraud towards a precipice. The Sun appears under the aspect of the god Apollo. Hope, the third of the theological virtues, holds her anchor. The Liberal Art Rhetoric, the third of the Trivium, appears in her resplendent gown. The vice Sloth lurks menacingly.

4. Youth shows young men occupied in games, banquets, and love-making. Venus is present with her son Cupid, while the cardinal virtue Temperance attempts to hold her bridle. Music, which in its vulgar modes can lubricate the passions, plays her instruments.

5. Manhood shows Mars in armour. The cardinal virtue is Prudence, who holds her mirror. The vice is Wrath. The Art is Arithmetic.

6. Old Age is a priest kneeling before an altar. Jupiter appears with his eagle. Fortitude is in the act of taming a lion. The art is Astronomy.

7. Decrepitude labours under an image of Saturn devouring his children, and holding an emblem of the ouroboros, the serpent biting its tail, a familiar symbol of time and eternity. The art is Geometry.

Vasari’s parallelism is, once again, achieved at the expense of torturous effort; but once again, it perfectly illustrates the pre-modern habit of mind.

A simpler and more coherent alignment of the Seven Ages and the Seven Planets is recorded in Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World:

Our Infancie is compared to the Moon, in which we seem only to live and grow, as plants; the second age to Mercury, wherein we are taught and instructed; our third age to Venus, the days of love, desire, vanity; the fourth to the Sun, the strong, flourishing, and beautiful age of man’s life; the fifth to Mars, in which we seek honor and victory, and in which our thoughts travail to ambitious ends; the sixth age is ascribed to Jupiter, in which we begin to take accompt of our times, judge of ourselves, and grow to the perfection of our understanding; the last and seventh to Saturn, wherein our days are sad and downcast, and in which we find by dear and lamentable experience, and by the loss which can never be repaired, that of all our vain passions and affections past, the sorrow only abideth.

This is the usual schema, which we find also in Francis Quarles’ seventeenth-century book of Emblems, and in a thousand other places.