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

Seven, cont’d…

The Seven Gift-Virtues…The Somme le roi…Trees and Gardens of Virtues and Vices…

Reproduced and recopied in art, poetry, and especially in the school texts and popular handbooks I’ve just mentioned, the definitions, subdivisions, order, and imagery of the Virtues became lodged in the medieval and Renaissance mind as part of its common intellectual apparatus, almost like multiplication tables. They would have been memorized and recited by scholars, students and the unlettered alike, and sermonized upon by parish priests.

After the papal edict of 1215 requiring annual confessions, there came a number of important orders throughout the thirteenth century on the obligation of parish priests to instruct their parishioners, four times yearly, in the rudiments of the faith. Answering to that need, a whole array of didactic treatises and manuals was published containing expositions of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Paternoster, the Virtues and Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Works of Mercy, Seven Sacraments, Beatitudes, and so on.

This is one of the reasons for the wide dispersal and popularity of a text such as the Somme le roi. Herein Brother Lorens expounds upon the Ten Commandments; the Creed; the Seven Sins; the “Art of Dying and Living”, with a “garden of the virtues”; the Paternoster; and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, with the virtues they nourish. In this last section, Brother Lorens discourses on the sub-virtue Magnificence, which, in a passage I discussed earlier, he lists as the sixth and last degree of Fortitude.

What is interesting is that the Fortitude that unfolds supremely into Magnificence is not the Fortitude of the Four Cardinal Virtues, but the Fortitude that is the fourth Gift of the Holy Spirit. Lorens has identified these two, though they come from completely disparate religious and cultural contexts, on the perfectly rational basis of their common name, and so imported the “parts” into which Macrobius had subdivided the classical Virtue into the train of the Christian Gift. We see then, again, the confusing interpenetration of the two quite different series.

None of the Sevens was more popularly portrayed in literature and the graphic arts than the Seven Gift-Virtues. Let me quote again from Isaiah 11:2: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, and the spirit of wisdom, and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety, and of the fear of the Lord”. Though the doctrine of the Gifts was never officially declared a dogma of the Church, nevertheless, in early Christian and medieval treatises, there is virtually no fluctuation in the order in which the spiritus descending upon Christ and man are listed: from Timor Domini, upward through Pietas, Scientia, Fortitudo, Consilium, Intellectus, to Sapientia, the highest. From the time of Augustine, they had become not only a fixed series, which could be read in either direction, but a hierarchical one, a gradus or ladder of the virtues to be progressively achieved and perfected during one’s Christian lifetime in one’s spiritual ascent to beatitude and the visio Dei.

Augustine was probably also the earliest authority to link the gradus of the Gift-Virtues to two other Sevens: the Petitions of the Paternoster and the Beatitudes. And inevitably, these correspondences became commonplaces.

In the fourteenth-century Glossa Ordinaria, the Gifts are those for which we pray in the Seven Petitions: in “Hallowed be thy name” for God to strengthen in us the Gift of Fear of the Lord; in “Thy kingdom come” for Piety; in “Thy will be done”, for Knowledge, and so on. In another section of the Glossa, the Gifts are read in reverse order, from highest to lowest. Thus Petition two “Thy kingdom come”, is interpreted as asking that the spirit of Understanding shine like the sun in our hearts. In the Paternoster tract in the Somme le roi, where the same connection between Petition two and the Gift of Understanding is made, we read that the good heart, seeing the darkness in which it is enshrouded, takes pick-axe and shovel to mine away sin, and to build there a fit foundation for the erection of the Kingdom of God.

As Tuve remarks, “This possibility of reading the parallels in either direction depends upon a fairly typical medieval notion of what a relationship can consist of; enforced by the prior decision to find sets of relations between series not initially related at all, the relations are uncovered, with some belief in the marvelous correspondences that are part of the very structure of truth.”

The most common order, however, is to begin with Timor Domini and end with Sapientia, in part because of the verse from Ecclesiastes (19:18), “Initium sapientiae, timor Domini” (“The beginning of Wisdom is the fear of the Lord”); and partly because Sapientia, Wisdom, is the supreme virtue of the contemplative life, Wisdom being not only required for the contemplation of, but also the essential quality of, God’s own nature.

So common is the idea of Timor Domini as the basic Gift that we realize that we are in its conventional orbit when, for instance, in the famous fourteenth-century allegory, Le pelerinage de la vie de l’homme (The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man), the Porter, who is the first to converse with Guillaume de Deguileville on the strange ship of Religion, is named Fear of the Lord. Conversely, at the end of the sixteenth century, in Book I of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, his protagonist Red Crosse Knight has his ascent crowned by Sapientia.

The Christian theme of the Gift-Virtues is thus particularly amenable to the idea of an educational or spiritual regime that involves a gradual perfection in virtues of increasing difficulty, while the Cardinal Virtues, though they emanate and proliferate, largely escape this sort of ordering. For this reason, the connection between the Seven Petitions of the Paternoster and the Seven Gifts remained one of the most widely diffused of medieval and Renaissance commonplaces.

We find it, as I have already mentioned, in Hugh of St. Victor’s commentary on the Five Sevens; in John of Salisbury’s on the Seven Sevens; in Alan of Lille; in the following (thirteenth) century, in St. Thomas, and in St. Bonaventure’s Breviloquium; in the Elizabethan period, in Nash, Lodge, and Dekker.

Even more important is the connection between the Gift-Virtues and the Beatitudes, Augustine’s famous sermon on the Beatitudes being here, again, the well-spring of this longstanding and allegorically prolific tradition. The Gift-Virtues, as he explains, dispose us to those seven blessed conditions or spiritual endowments of which the Beatitudes speak. From Fear of the Lord, or Humilitas, we accede to “poorness in spirit”, on up to the highest gift, Sapientia, in which we know God in the beatific union of the highest mystical state, Pax, as in “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

The correspondences between the Seven Gifts-Petitions-Beatitudes furnished, as Tuve observes, “a set of seven virtues totally different in aspect from the set we know best [that is, the four cardinals and three theological], and more important than them not only for the arts but for theology.” These other Seven, which are sometimes called the “spiritual virtues”, are those which Christ and the Virgin possessed in perfection, and those which man too possessed in Eden, before the fall.

The Spiritual Seven give rise to another complex of imagery that we see illustrated in an illumination from a manuscript of the Somme le roi, in which we see seven maidens, who represent the Seven Petitions of the Paternoster, watering the Virtues that were caused to flower by the Seven Gifts. This is the garden of the virtues which is Christ in the heart of man; it is the true paradise, as the text explains.

It then continues:

The seven trees signify the seven virtues of which this book speaks. The tree in the middle signifies Jesu Crist under whom grow the virtues. The seven fountains of this garden are the seven gifts of the holy spirit which make the garden grow. The seven maidens who draw from these seven fountains are the seven petitions of the paternoster which beseech the seven gifts of the holy spirit.

One reason for the importance of this series is that it was this set of seven, not the four cardinals and three theologicals, that were set in opposition to the Seven Deadly Sins. Here, again, is Tuve: “Because they are the roots nourished in the heart by the Seven Gifts or spiritus we pray for in the seven petitions, they displace the evil roots which are the seven capital sins, the vices.”

As Frere Lorens rehearses the commonplace in his Somme le roi: “The holy spirit, by the seven gifts, doth away and destroieth the seven deadly sins.” Thus the Gift of Drede (Timor Domini), listed first in Lorens’ series, destroys the root of pride, and sets in its place the virtue of Humility of which Christ spoke in his first Beatitude (Blessed are the poor in spirit). The second Gift, Pite (Piety) “maketh the herte swete and debonere and pitous”, which casts out the root of Envy, and replaces it with the benignity of which Christ spoke in the second Beatitude (Blessed are the meek, who shall inherit the earth). The fourth Gift, Fortitude, roots out Sloth, and replaces it with the hunger and thirst after righteousness of the fourth Beatitude. The fifth Gift, Counsel, implants Misericorde (largesse, mercy), which roots out Avarice, and is related to the fifth Beatitude (Blessed are the merciful). (At this point in Friar Lorens’ schema, it is inevitable that we should be introduced to the Seven Corporal Works who conventionally follow in Mercy’s train.) The sixth Gift is Intellectus (Understanding), which Lorens says supplants the deadly sin of Luxuria (Lust) with the virtue of Chastity.

Here, in a number of later popular handbooks, including Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, we find Sobriety replacing Gluttony, and Chastity-Luxury under the next Gift, Sapientia. What surprises more than this fluctuation, as Tuve remarks, is the fact that the two highest Gifts, perfections possessed by the contemplatives, should nourish these seemingly lowest virtues, and that they should be opposed to these merely carnal vices. But all of Lorens’ terminology is meant to be read allegorically, indeed, mystice, and the connections are with the pure of heart (those who possess true Chastity) of the Sixth Beatitude; for they shall see God, as the text from Matthew continues, by the light of the incorporeal understanding.

Finally, the seventh Gift in the Somme le roi opposes to Gula’s (Gluttony’s) taste for the things of the world and the flesh the Sobrietas conceived as the complete harmony and concord between the Reason and the Appetite which is meant by the ineffable Pax of the seventh Beatitude: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Lorens quotes the verse, and makes much of the “saverous knowledge”, of the intoxication of love and mystical union, which he says is the last step on Jacob’s ladder of spiritual “perfectedness”.

The precise order of the correspondences that Lorens draws amongst the Gifts, Virtues, Beatitudes, and Sins is not universal, of course, but it is their lack of rigidity in which they differ so happily with the four-plus-three. As Tuve writes, the “beautifully articulated scheme of which they are a part offers no true inconsistencies, and conceptually it is clear, tough, and resilient enough to allow of theological modifications over many centuries. Literally numberless authors and artists treated” of them.


The idea of the oppositional pairing of the Virtues and Vices, which we encounter in the Somme, had a long history, and throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we find them so paired in manuscript illuminations, stained glass, and sculptural programs on the facades of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, sometimes in dramatic conflict, sometimes in static opposition; but this is another discussion we’ll have to postpone.

What requires our attention first is the Somme’s garden and arboreal imagery. The theme of the inner spiritual garden of virtues is another commonplace which is also originally Patristic, arising, naturally enough, out of the innumerable allegorical commentaries by the Fathers on Genesis in general and the Fall in particular.

In his spiritual garden, Brother Lorens imagines the Virtues as seven separate trees watered by the seven fountains of the Gifts, as we have seen. The biblical Eden, of course, also had trees and fountains, two each, in fact: a Tree of Knowledge and a Tree of Life; a fountain filled with the insipid water of the world, and another with the Water of Life, or Grace. It was almost impossible for the early Christians not to allegorize these oppositions, and one of the ways in which they did so was in terms of the opposition between the Seven Gifts-Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins.

The Tree of Knowledge, whose fatal fruit Eve consumed, bringing sin and death into the world, was the tree of the Seven Sins; the Tree of Life, that is, the Cross (which is also the Tree of Mary, the Second Eve, upon whom the life-giving fruit of Christ hangs) is the Tree whose blessed virtues uprooted the Evil Tree and its ramified vices forevermore.

In his De fructibus carnis et spiritus (On the Fruits of the Flesh and the Spirit), Hugh of St. Victor enumerates the names of each branch of the two trees. The first, he writes, is the tree of the Old Adam and has Pride as its root and trunk; from the trunk spring six boughs, Gula (Gluttony), Avaritia (Avarice or Covetousness), Luxuria (Lust), Accidia (Idleness or Sloth), Ira (Anger or Wrath), and Invidia (Envy). The second tree is the tree of the New Adam, with the Humility of the first Beatitude as its trunk, and the three theological and four cardinal virtues as its seven branches. The first of these trees was planted by Adam; the second by Christ, the New Adam, its roots fed by the fountain of life.

Though Lorens’ Garden of Virtues in the heart of man in the fourth tractate of his Somme le roi conceives of seven different trees, he is careful to do so within the context of this long tradition of the biblical Tree of Life-Virtue and the Tree of Knowledge-Sin. Lorens introduces the figure of the good man or woman as a “fair garden full of green and of fair trees and of good fruit”, planted in the soul by the archetypal Gardener. The seven trees growing in the heart or soul are called “grafts”, in that they are the virtues transplanted, as it were, from another Tree, the Tree of Life in Eden, which is Christ, and nurtured by the Spirit’s Gifts of Grace. “God’s Son, that is the Very Sun [Son-Sun being another ancient topos], by his virtue and brightness, makes them grow”; this “paradise right delitable in the heart” is the image of the other pre-lapsarian paradise in Eden:

Right as God set earthly paradise full of good trees and fruit, and in the middle set the tree of life…Right so doth ghostly to the heart the godly gardener, that is God the father, for he sets the trees of virtue and in the middle the tree of life, that is Jesu Crist, for he sayeth in the gospel, “Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath life without end.”

The root of this Tree is God’s “outrageous charity”, and by virtue of the “fruit of the tree of Jesse” (that is, once more, Christ), all the other trees in the garden bear fruit. The branches of the Tree of Life are Christ’s own virtues, taught to the disciples in the Beatitudes; moreover, Christ also taught the “seven perfect petitions” by which the seven grafted trees in each man’s garden receive the water of grace from the seven fountains that are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And here we are back to Lorens’ seven maidens/Gifts and seven streams/Petitions, discussed above.