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

Seven, cont’d…

The Battle of The Virtues and the Vices…

Prudentius’ Pyschomachia…

I’ve said that the Virtues and Vices tended to be described and displayed in oppositional pairs, and now I must return to this motive. It comes jointly from the tradition I have been describing, and from another that goes back to the poetry of the fourth century, in which the war of the Virtues and Vices was a favourite theme for the new Christian epic that was then being born.

The theme’s model and locus classicus was the Psychomachia (War of the Soul), a famous allegorical epic written by the fourth-century Latin poet Prudentius, in which the antagonists are the armies of God and Satan, and the battlefield is at once the psychic interior of man and the entire universe.

The Psychomachia recounts the battle in heroic Virgilian hexameters, and displays throughout the reverence that the Christian Middle Ages held for the Aeneid. Its influence on later Christian poetry and art demands that we pause for the briefest summary.

Prudentius shows us the armies of the Virtues and Vices in menacing array on the battlefield. One by one, champions emerge from their ranks, challenge one another, and engage in single combat.

First Faith, with appropriate self-confidence, rushes onto the field; disdaining to protect herself with her familiar Pauline breastplate and shield, she advances boldly against her old enemy Idolatry, and quickly prevails.

Next Chastity, a young girl in shining armour, confronts Lust, a courtesan who carries a smoking torch. Chastity overturns the torch, cuts down her enemy with her sword, and while standing over the corpse, extols the Old Testament Judith, in whom chastity first triumphed.

Patience then advances, and stands placidly awaiting the attack of Anger, whose blows she absorbs without flinching. Seeing that Patience is invulnerable, Anger seizes a javelin in her rage and thrusts it into her own breast. Thus Patience prevails without even drawing her sword.

Now Pride, mounted on a spirited charger, prances before the army of Virtues. Her hair piled up like a tower on her forehead, she taunts them, accusing them of craven cowardice. Suddenly horse and rider disappear into the pit that Deceit (Fraus) has secretly dug on the battlefield, and Humility then approaches, takes the shield that Hope holds out to her, and vanquishes Pride. Thereupon the beautiful maiden spreads her golden wings and soars heavenwards.

Self-induglence (Luxuria) steps forward, her hair ostentatiously coiffed and perfumed, her car a marvelous chariot whose axle is gold, wheels silver-gilt, and coachwork sparkles with precious stones. Like her patroness Venus in the Aeneid, she is an indifferent fighter, flinging violets and rose-petals at her enemies instead of arrows and missiles. The Virtues are at first confused by the curious manner of her attack, but Temperance, armed with the standard of the Cross, steps in front of the car. The horses rear, the chariot is overturned, and Luxuria is tossed into the mud. Abandoned by her retinue, including Cupid, she is dispatched by Temperance with a single blow of a stone.

Meanwhile, while Luxuria is being ejected from her car, Avarice is gathering up in her claw-like fingers the gold and jewels spilled overboard. She hides them in her bulging purses and bags beneath her cloak, until Beneficence slays her and distributes her pelf to the poor.

Following a brief rally by the army of the Vices, the battle is over, and the triumphant Virtues celebrate their victory by raising a temple like that of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse.


Prudentius’ allegorical epic inspired more imitations than I could name. The Carolingian poets Theodulph of Orleans and Walafrid Strabo recounted the battle of the Virtues and Vices, to which, in the twelfth century, Alan of Lille devoted the ninth and last book of his philosophical allegory, Anticlaudianus. Theologians, biblical exegetes, and encyclopaedists also rehearsed the theme.

Hugh of St. Victor (twelfth century) treats of it in his De anima, Isidore of Seville (seventh) in his Book of Sentences; Pope Gregory the Great (late-sixth) in his treatise De conflictu vitiorum et virtutum (part of which is reproduced by Isidore, and in the thirteenth century, by Vincent of Beauvais, in his Spectrum historiale).

Scenes from Prudentius were inevitably represented in manuscript illuminations and sculptural programs on the facades of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. At Laon, for instance, we see Luxuria, called Libido, holding the flaming torch with which she threatens Castitas; we see Faith contending with Idolatry, Superbia with Humilitas, Patientia with Ira, and so on.

On the north porch at Chartres, the triumphant Virtues are shown, no longer in conflict, but hieratically, with their enemies lying prone beneath their feet. Here, moreover, the choice of scene and subject is no longer precisely that of Prudentius, but expands into the whole Virtues-Vices tradition whose history we have been tracing. Thus, Charity is juxtaposed with Avarice, who not content with filling her purse, hides her excess riches in her bosom; Pride, who tumbles head-first into the ditch that has opened beneath his feet, is ranged against Humility; Despair, who falls on his sword, is opposed to Hope.

But almost every conceivable pair of opposites is here depicted in stone: Prudence and Folly, Justice and Injustice, Fortitude and Cowardice, Temperance and Intemperance, Faith and Infidelity (who appears in the guise of the Old Woman Synagoga). With the addition of many others, including Concord and Discord, Perseverance and Inconstancy, we see the same, or similar, pairs represented in plaques in bas-relief on the façade of Notre Dame in Paris and at Amiens.

While varying slightly from example to example, the iconography of these Virtues and Vices was more or less conventional, and would have been well-known to poets and artists throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; but, unfortunately, I don’t have time to say much more about it here.

I must move on to our last important Seven, the Seven Liberal Arts.