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

Seven, cont’d…

The Seven Sevens…

Virtues…Gifts of the Holy Spirit…Petitions of the Paternoster…Works of Mercy…Beatitudes…Sacraments…Deadly Sins…

The Virtues…

Beyond its governance of time, the early Fathers recognized Seven as a number of primordial ontological significance. As they observe (an observation that was endlessly repeated by later medieval theologians and biblical exegetes), Seven is the sum of three, the number of the spirit, and four, the number of matter, whereby Seven is expressive of the essential duality of Christ as the God-man, and of man himself, defined as a soul conjoined with a body.

The same division into three and four governs a number of important medieval Sevens. There are, of course, Seven Virtues, consisting of the four classical or Cardinal Virtues to which the medieval church appended Paul’s three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. She did so, that is, in obedience to the age-old significance of the three and the four: the four cardinal virtues were now understood as applicable to the so-called active life, the life of man in the world; the three theological virtues belonged to the higher life of contemplation of heaven and the invisibilia dei.

Side by side with these Seven Virtues, the Church celebrated Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual virtues which they inspired, as we have seen; associated with these Gift-Virtues were the the Seven Petitions of the Paternoster; ranged in parallel with the Gift-Virtues and Petitions, were the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy (feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; harbouring the stranger; visiting the sick; ministering to prisoners; burying the dead), and their Spiritual Counterparts; ranged in parallel with any and all of the above, were the spiritual perfections of the Seven Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5) (the poor in spirit; the meek; they who hunger after righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; the persecuted); associated with any or all of the above were the Seven Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Absolution, Extreme Unction, Ordination, Marriage); and opposed to any or all of the former sevens, the Seven Deadly Sins.

As the art historian Emile Male remarks in his indispensable work on medieval iconography, The Gothic Image, “The grace necessary for the practice of the seven virtues is obtained by addressing to God the seven petitions of the Paternoster. The seven sacraments sustain man in the exercise of these virtues, and guard him from falling into the seven deadly sins.”

Similarly, the Church commemorated the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary (at the prophecy of Simeon; at the flight into Egypt; at the loss of Jesus in the Temple; at meeting him on Calvary; standing at the foot of the Cross; at the taking down of his body; and at his burial); invested with special importance the Seven Words from the Cross (Forgive them Father, etc.; Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise; Woman, behold thy son…; Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani; I thirst; It is finished; Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit).

One could go on, of course, to note that the Gifts of the Holy Spirit were regularly connected with the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb of Christ in Rev. 5:6, or the seven eyes in the stone of Zechariah 3:9; similarly, the doves of the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ at his Baptism were seven, to be read, naturally enough, as the Seven Gifts in stained glass and manuscript illuminations; conflated with these image complexes were the seven lights of the candelabrum – the menorah – in the Temple, which was allegorically interpreted as a symbol of Christ very early on, an interpretation that inevitably found its way into the fourteenth-century Glossa Ordinaria.

And then, inevitably too, some or all of these sevens were traced back to the Seven Days of Creation, as in the thirteenth-century Breviloquium of St. Bonaventure. Manuscript illuminations of the seven penitential Psalms also imply their relation to the Seven Vices and Seven Gift-Virtues, and to the seven-times intoned “Dominus vobiscum” of the Mass.

In scriptural commentaries, biblical characters were also subsumed within this comprehensive image complex: in Gregory the Great’s Moralia on Job (I, 27), for instance, Job’s three daughters are read as allegorical symbols of the theological virtues, and his seven sons, of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As another indispensable medieval scholar, Rosamunde Tuve, has observed in her Allegorical Imagery, “medieval discussions had made [these] several groups of seven very usual as figures. A whole complex of ideas…is intimated often when we least expect it”; and on the survival of this imagery into the Renaissance, she continues, “I think we can rest assured that the sevens were brought so frequently to men’s attention that they could not have become by the sixteenth century mere old medieval learned lore.”

As you can imagine, the significance of these explicitly Christian Sevens was the subject of innumerable doctrinal expositions by the early Christian and medieval theologians and poets, who typically ranked them, as we’ll see presently, in a hierarchy from lowest to highest, and arranged various combinations of the Sevens in parallel. The correspondences amongst them naturally appealed to the mystical imagination, and filled it with awe at the secret providential order imprinted by the Divine Mind everywhere upon his vast Creation.

The Sevens served, moreover, as an important mnemonic aid in the schools, and thus the lists were endlessly copied and re-copied from authority to authority throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But this is a subject to which we must return later.


Since the Virtues and Vices in general was so ubiquitous a topos in medieval and Renaissance art and literature, a few words about the history of this tradition seem appropriate here, even if they distract us, momentarily, as they must, from the symbolic significance of the number Seven per se. For the three theological virtues, the source, as I have already mentioned, is Paul (I Cor. 13:13). The theme of the Four Cardinal Virtues traces back ultimately to Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s systematic discussion of them in both the Nicomachean Ethics and his treatise On Rhetoric.

As usual, however, for their understanding of the theme and classification of the Cardinals, the medieval and Renaissance poets, artists, and theologians depended upon the no less reverend authority of much later classical texts. The most important of these were: Cicero’s De Officis (On Duties), De Inventione (his treatise on rhetoric), and his Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio), or rather, I should say Cicero’s Dream as it was transmitted to the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Marcrobius’ enormously popular Commentary.

From Cicero onward, each of the Four Virtues was subject to elaborate subdivision: each, that is, had its various “parts”, or “aspects”, or “emanations”, through which it was manifested. Thus Cicero’s Fortitude, for instance, breaks down into the four parts of Magnificentia, Fidentia (faith or loyalty), Patientia, and Perseverentia, each of which become in turn the subject of further philosophical elaboration.

In Macrobius’ treatment of the Cardinal Virtues in book I of his Commentary – a text that for a variety of reasons became the common property of all succeeding centuries –, Fortitude is manifested in its seven parts: Magnanimitas, Fiducia (loyalty or trustworthiness), Securitas, Magnificentia, Constantia, Tolerantia, and Firmitas. And so it is with each of the Cardinal Four.

The complications that these proliferations introduced into the medieval and Renaissance conception and imagery of the Virtues are illustrated by a thirteenth-century text of enormous popularity and influence, extant in dozens of medieval manuscripts, published in the late-fifteenth century by Caxton, reprinted by Wynkyn de Worde and Pynson, and again and again down through the generations.


The Somme le roi was written in Middle French in 1279. In it, its author, Frere Lorens, does what innumerable theologians, poets, encyclopaedists, and artists do before and after him; for here we meet a combination of the two great authorities, Cicero and Macrobius, in Lorens’ “six degrees” of Fortitude: Magnanimite, Affiaunce, Surete, Patience, Constaunce, and Magnificence.

Macrobius’ series is the main source of Lorens’ list, but he departs from it in omitting Macrobius’ Tolerantia, and reverts to Cicero in including Patientia. I don’t wish to confuse you (any more than usual, that is), but the point is an important one insofar as it illustrates the way in which the classical Virtues were, as it were, baptized into Christianity. Patience is, of course, a virtue of fundamental importance in Scripture; it is Christ’s special form of Fortitude, and so, freighted with these Christian meanings, it becomes customary to include it under Fortitude in the medieval tradition of the Four; for the same reason, in a series of quite other virtues, as we’ll see, Patience was shown most frequently in opposition to Ira (Wrath), especially in art.

The same long and complicated Christianizing development has led to Brother Lorens’ allocation of Magnificentia as the last and crowning phase of the “six degrees” of Fortitude. As Lorens explains (in the Caxton translation):

The sixth degree of Fortitude is Magnificence. This virtue expresseth and declareth also the philosopher, saying Magnificence is an high work and happy achieving. Our Lord Jhesu Cryst the sovereign philosopher called this virtue Perseverance by which the good knight of God endureth the evils unto the end in that highway of perfection which he hath emprised. Of this virtue sayeth Saint Paul that all the virtues run but this virtue winneth the sword. All they fight but this hath the victory and the crown. All work. But this virtue of Perseverance beareth away the reward and the merit. (I Cor. 9)

Lorens’ “philosopher” is, of course, Aristotle, who, however, defines Magnificence in the fourth book of the Ethics as “the expenditure of wealth involving largesse and scale” upon worthy, tasteful, and honorable projects. Aristotle has the visionary Keynesian politician or generous public benefactor in mind, who builds temples to the gods, or equips a trireme in the time of war, or supposedly stimulates a depressed economy by going into debt and spending it on over-budget make-work projects. But this smacks too much of grandiosity and pride to be a high Christian virtue, and so in the Somme le roi and other medieval handbooks on the virtues, it is reinterpreted as Perseverance, as the “sovereign philosopher”, Christ, that is, exemplified it.

Brother Lorens’ identification of Magnificence, the highest degree of Fortitude, with Christ’s and St. Paul’s Perseverance, perfecting the virtue by carrying it through to the end, also explains why Cicero’s Perseverantia and Macrobius’ Firmitas are omitted, since they are both included within the new Christian conception. It is this same Pauline and medieval definition, moreover, that the Elizabethan poet Spenser had in mind in his allegorical epic The Faerie Queene, in which the protagonist knight of each of his twelve books was conceived to “set forth” a different virtue, with King Arthur, who enters each book at a crucial juncture in the knight’s adventure, symbolizing the Magnificence through which all of these several virtues is perfected through grace.

Brother Lorens’ precise six degrees of Fortitude, chosen partly from Cicero, mainly from Macrobius, and amended by St. Paul, was not, of course, a selection he made without the precedence of authority. That selection had been made by the authors of a number of treatises on the virtues of the mid-twelfth-century, and Lorens, sensibly enough for a pre-modern writer, reproduced it.

We find the same series in Alan of Lille’s De virtutibus et de vitiis et de donis Spiritus Sancti (On the Virtues, Vices and Gifts of the Holy Spirit), in William of Conches’ Moralium dogma philosophorum (Teachings of the Moral Philosophers), and will find it again more than a century later, in the late-thirteenth, in John of Wales’ Breviloquium de virtutibus. All of these texts, once again, were circulated in innumerable manuscripts, reprinted in Renaissance editions, and translated into various vernacular languages, through which, along with the pictorial arts, the learned traditions of the medieval authorities were channeled into the stream of accepted common knowledge

Written shortly before 1150, Guillaume of Conches’ Moralium dogma philosophorum, was constantly re-copied, translated into French, Italian, and German, quoted by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century writers, and printed in at least five sixteenth-century editions. Alan of Lille’s treatise On the Virtues, Vices, and Gifts of the Holy Spirit (written ca. 1160), was used in the schools, and translated into French by the important fifteenth-century author Christine de Pisan.

In both of these texts, once again, the Cardinal Virtues exfoliate into their parts or emanations, and in both the framework is Macrobian. In both, for instance, we encounter the same seven “parts” of Prudence that we find in Macrobius: Ratio, Intellectus, Circumspectio, Providentia, Docilitas, and Cautio. Macrobius writes that Temperance has in her train Modestia, Abstinentia, Castitas, Honestas, Moderatio, Sobrietas, and Pudicitia, and we find them in that order in Guillaume and Alan, though Alan can’t resist adding Continentia, which Cicero makes the first “part” of Temperance.

With Justice, matters become somewhat more complicated. Cicero’s parts are Religio, Pietas, Gratia, Vindicatio, Observantia, and Veritas; Macrobius begins with Innocentia, Amicitia, Concordia, then inserts Cicero’s Religio and Pietas. With abstractions like Religio, Pietas, Gratia, and Veritas, the medieval virtues literature tends to cleave to Cicero’s list, with Alan further subdividing Religio into the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

In Guillaume’s Moralia, under Cicero’s Gratia, we also find the sub-aspect Misericordia (Mercy), which illustrates another of those typically medieval logical contradictions. One of Christian Europe’s most recurrent themes, in both literature and art, is the opposition between the Justice of the Old Law and the Mercy of the New, and indeed there is a minor genre of literature in which Justice and her champion Truth accuse mankind while Mercy and her champion Peace defend him, in a debate for and against the salvation of his soul. But Mercy can also be conceived, as Guillaume conceives her, as an aspect or face of Christian Justice, and so we have a no less popular topos, that of the justly merciful ruler.


The principal point to be born in mind is the medieval tendency to divide and subdivide each virtue, a legacy from Cicero and Macrobius, which means, of course, that there can be any number of them, not merely the Seven assembled from the Cardinal Four and the Theological Three. The same must be said of the Vices, which, for instance, were often generated in opposition to the Virtues and their various emanations: Discordia, for example in debate or conflict with Concord, or Foolhardiness in contrast to Cautio.

I call this a medieval tendency, though more accurately, it should be called a Hellenic one, which the Middle Ages inherited from late-antiquity. We see it in the ancient Greek understanding of the various gods as aspects or faces or emanations of the One Supreme God, and we see it here, as well, in the idea that the parts or elements that follow from, or come of, or show, or declare, the great quiddity of the Virtue that is being divided, are aspects or faces in which that Virtue is made manifest.

It need hardly be added, moreover, how easily the offspring, or attendants, or embodiments of the Virtues can be personified as attendants in the retinue of their great Queen; and, indeed, that is how we typically see them in medieval and Renaissance allegorical literature and art.