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

Seven, concluded…

The Seven Liberal Arts …

Martianus’ De Nuptiis…Alan’s Anticlaudianus…

I’ve already mentioned the ontological disposition of Seven into Three and Four. The Seven Liberal Arts were grouped in the same way, with the distinction, this time, between what we might call a corporeal Trivium and a spiritual Quadrivium.

The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic, and was regarded, for reasons that will become clearer in a moment, as an introductory course of studies that prepared the adolescent intellect for the higher theoretical and metaphysical mysteries of the Quadrivium, consisting of the mathematical disciplines of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.

The study of the Trivium was, in essence, the study of literature. The Greek gramma, from which we get “grammar”, means an alphabetic “letter” (grammar’s close relation to literature suggested, obviously enough, by the derivation in Latin of “literature”, the abstract noun, from littera, “letter”).

The student of Grammar not only learned the parts of speech, the rules of syntax, and so on, but was introduced to a traditional canon of literary texts including, in ancient Greece, the epics of Homer pre-eminently, and in Rome, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and numerous other auctores.

Rhetoric was the study of the figures of speech used by poets and orators, and Dialectic was concerned less with the rational-philosophical method for ascertaining ontological truth than the most effective means for winning spoken or written arguments.


Plato, as we all remember, had notoriously excluded poetry from the curriculum in his ideal Republic because it trafficked in sensual images, the mere copies and reflections of the invisible and stable realities that were for him the proper objects of the philosophical intelligence. From the time of Plato – indeed, from the birth of what we call “philosophy” in the age of the Pre-Socratics – until the end of the eighteenth century, the antithetical and hierarchical relation between the sensual and “feminine” poetic arts and the masculine and rational pursuits of philosophy was another ubiquitous topos. It is this same intellectual hierarchy that is preserved in the relation between the literary studies of the Trivium and the mathematical sciences of the Quadrivium.

In the prologue to the Anticlaudianus, a twelfth-century poem to which we will return in a moment, Alan of Lille describes their relationship as follows:

Let those not dare to show disdain for this work who are still wailing in the cradles of the nurses and are being suckled at the breasts of the lower arts [i.e., the Trivium]. Let those not try to detract from this work who are just giving promise of a service in the higher arts [the Quadrivium]. Let those not presume to undo this work who are beating the doors of heaven with their philosophical heads. For in this work, the sweetness of the literal sense will soothe the ears of boys, the moral instruction will inspire the mind on the road to perfection, the sharper subtlety of the mystical allegory will whet the advanced intellect. Let those be denied access to this work who pursue only sense-images and do not reach out for the truth that comes from reason, lest what is holy, being set before doges be soiled, lest the pearl, trampled under feet of swine be lost [Matt. 7:6], lest the esoteric be impaired if its grandeur is revealed to the unworthy.

Here, then, the ladder of human knowledge rises from the lower “sensual” arts of the Trivium, to the higher intellectual arts of the Quadrivium, and thence, to Philosophy. Philosophy “beats its head on the gates of heaven”, but as we learn later in Alan’s allegory, only Theology can enter. (We encounter the same motive in the Commedia, of course, where, as the embodiment and symbol of the highest achievements of human culture and wisdom, Virgil can guide Dante only so far up the Mountain of Purgatory, whereafter he must cede the mystagogic mantle to Beatrice, symbol of divine knowledge, who alone can reveal to him the hidden mysteries of God’s celestial Paradise.)

In the passage from Alan, one notes, besides, a correspondence between the hierarchy of the intellectual disciplines and that of the familiar four senses of allegory. The Trivium corresponds to the literal sense of poetry, fittingly enough, which pleases the immature appetites of boys with its sensual images, while the Quadrivium, Philosophy, and Theology correspond to the three allegorical senses (allegory proper, tropology, and anagogy), in turn.


The ultimate authority and source for all such hierarchical schemes is Martianus Capella’s seminal treatise on the Seven Liberal Arts, De Nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae (The Wedding of Mercury and Philology). Martianus was a pagan grammarian who flourished between 410 and 439 – roughly contemporary with Macrobius, that is, whose commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio we have had occasion to mention several times. The powerful and enduring influence of both of these authorities on later medieval and Renaissance thought and letters demonstrates, once again, the fundamental continuity between antique paganism and Christianity.

Martianus’ Latin work preserved, in the form of an elaborate mythological fiction, the basic characteristics of an educational system that derived from ancient Greece, and was handed on, in turn, to the Christian Middle Ages, whence it survived more or less intact to the beginning of the last century.

Filling nine books and over five hundred pages in the Renaissance folio edition, it is predictably tiresome to the post-modern reader, but, along with other late-antique pagan mythological allegories, such as Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae, it set the fashion for a long tradition of both medieval allegorical romance and philosophical poetry, that included everything from the Roman de la Rose to Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus and Bernardus Silvestris’ De universitate mundi. Since its allegorical interpretations and themes were so often reprised throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a brief excursion here seems warranted.

The Reader’s Digest version of the action, confined to the first two books of Martianus’ treatise, goes as follows:

Martianus begins with a hymn to Hymen, the classical god of love and marriage, who is the matchmaker among the deities of Olympus, and simultaneously lauded as the primordial conciliator of the warring elements—the cosmogonic role played, since antiquity, by innumerable other gods/allegorical abstractions, including the Celestial Venus, Eros, Nature, Logos-Reason, Concord-Harmony, Moira (Fate), and Dike (Justice).

Of the Olympians, Mercury is the last remaining bachelor; Virtus accordingly advises him to seek Apollo’s advice on a prospective bride, and when Mercury does so, the God of Truth and Reason proposes the learned Philologia. Having been initiated not only in the mysteries of poetry by the Muses of Parnassus but also in the secret lore of the heavens and the underworld, Philologia is a repository of universal knowledge.

Apollo, Virtus, and Mercury, accompanied by the Muses, then ascend through the planetary spheres to the palace of Jupiter, where the assembled gods grant Mercury’s wish and admit his bride into the ranks of the immortals. She is dressed for the wedding by her mother Phronesis (Wisdom), and attended by the Four Cardinal Virtues and the Three Graces (our number Seven, again). In a litter carried by Labor and Amor along with the maidens Epimelia (Application) and Agrypnia (the nocturnal efforts of the sleep-deprived scholar), she is borne upward to the heaven beyond the planets, where she is received by Juno, the patroness of marriage, as well as all manner of allegorical figures, demigods, and heroes, including the antique poets and sages. As her wedding gift, the bride receives the Seven Liberal Arts, to each of which Martianus then devotes one book of his work.

In keeping with late-antique fashion, the arts are personified as women, each distinguished by her symbolic clothing and attributes, and each of which comes forward to discourse on the nature, lore, and most illustrious masters of her subject.

Grammar is a grey-haired crone, claiming descent from the first Egyptian king Osiris, the traditional inventor of the alphabet, and carrying an ivory casket resembling a surgeon’s case of instruments, since grammar surgically excises the errors of speech. In the casket are inks, pens, tablets, candlesticks, a file in eight sections (symbolizing the eight parts of speech), and a scalpel to operate upon the tongue and teeth for the improvement of elocution.

Dialectic presents herself next, a thin woman in a black cape with hair coiffed in elaborate rolls. She holds a serpent half-hidden under her robe in her left hand, and in her right, a wax tablet and fish-hook. The allegorical symbolism is explained by Remigus of Auxerre in his tenth-century commentary on Martianus: the curls of hair, he observes, denote the sinuations of the syllogism, the serpent the subtleties of sophistry, and the hook the sting of victorious argument.

Rhetoric next advances to the heraldry of trumpets. Helmeted and armed with those formidable weapons with which she attacks her oratorical foes, she is a tall and elegant lady, dressed in a gorgeous gown ornamented with metaphors, synecdoches, and other figures of speech, and festooned with precious jewels.

Geometry’s robe is embroidered with the trajectories of the stars, the shadow cast by the earth upon the sky, and the signs of the gnomic parallelogram of the sundial. She carries a globe and the instruments of her trade: a pair of compasses and a tablet on which she draws her figures.

From the forehead of the ancient goddess Arithmetic is emitted a ray which divides in half, thirds, quarters, and so on, to infinity. Her fingers (i.e., digits) move with blinding agility and speed, symbolizing, as Remigus comments, the rapidity of her calculations.

Astronomy emerges from a lambent flame, wearing a coronet of stars upon her head. She soars upon golden wings with crystalline feathers, and carries her astrolabe for measuring the positions of the heavenly bodies.

Last, Music, or Harmonia, comes forward at the head of a retinue of goddesses and famous poets and musicians, including the Graces, the Muses, Orpheus, Arion, and Amphion, all of whom sing sweetly to the accompaniment of her golden-strung lyre.

These, then, are the conventional iconographical attributes of the Seven Ladies in the train of the bride Philologia in Martianus Capella’s epithalamial allegory.


From the time of its publication, Martianus’ De Nuptiis entered the school curriculum and occupied a space on the shelves of every major monastic and cathedral library in Europe. The central role that it played in European education ensured that Martianus’ allegorical figures would be described again and again in poetry, and represented, their attributes endlessly multiplied and embellished, in manuscript illuminations, woodcuts, engravings, stained glass, sculptural programs, murals, and paintings throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

We find them prominently displayed, once again, on the western facade of Laon and the royal portal of Chartres–not surprisingly, being amongst the most important schools of medieval Europe, and attracting as directors such famous men of letters and science as Anselm, Gilbert of Poitiers, John of Salisbury, and Thierry and Bernard.

Chartres especially was a centre of classical literary and philosophical learning, toward which her teachers and students displayed an uncomplicated reverence. Not coincidentally, amongst Thierry of Chartres’ most famous works is his Heptateuchon, or Manual on the Seven Liberal Arts; and it was Bernard (his successor as director of the cathedral school in the mid-twelfth century) who said famously of the ancient pagans: “If we see further than they, it is not in virtue of our stronger sight, but because we are lifted up by them and carried to a great height. We are dwarfs carried on the shoulders of giants.”

In fact, we see the Seven Goddesses depicted on most of the major cathedrals and churches throughout France and Europe: at Auxerre, Sens, Rouen, Clermont, Le Puy, at the famous Spanish Chapel of Sta. Maria Novella in Florence. We meet them again on the façade of the university at Bologna, and in Botticelli’s famous fresco from the Villa Lemmi in the Louvre.

In most cases, the attributes of the Goddesses are preserved more or less unchanged from Martianus, with the notable exception of Music, who at Le Puy and Florence now holds a hammer with which she strikes her bells, meant to recall the medieval tradition according to which the inventor of music was neither the pagans Apollo nor Orpheus nor Pythagoras, but the biblical Jubal from whom the Greek arch-musicians supposedly learned their craft. For Christians, alternatively, it was David who was Music’s greatest practitioner, and who was also typically represented with hammers and bells in medieval Psalters.

While preserving the basic iconography of Martianus’ Seven Maidens, the medieval artists thus felt obliged to pay tribute as well to the legendary discoverers and most illustrious exponents of the arts. At Chartres, as elsewhere, beneath each of the Arts is depicted the seated figure of a man engaged in writing or contemplation. Seated under Grammar is a figure meant to represent either Donatus (fourth-century pagan grammarian, author of The Art of Grammar, and commentator on Virgil) or Priscian (late-fifth), whose grammatical primers were used in the schools and extant in thousands of medieval manuscripts. Under Rhetoric, appears Cicero, whose De Inventione and Rhetorica ad Herennium remained standard school texts until the nineteenth century. (As Alan of Lille observed, “Rhetoric might be called the daughter of Cicero.”) Dialectic is accompanied by Aristotle, proclaimed by Isidore of Seville as the father of that discipline, whose temporarily lost Organon (the Categories, De Interpretatione, Analytics, and Topics), was probably first reintroduced into Chartres’ cathedral school by Thierry around 1142. Also at Chartres, the figure seated beneath Music is once again Pythagoras, whose study of music yielded the mathematical underpinnings of ancient cosmology, and bequeathed to Platonism its fundamental orientation. There too, under Astronomy, we find Ptolemy, under Geometry, Euclid, and beneath the feet of Arithmetic, a figure who is possibly Pythagoras again (accorded this double honour), or perhaps Boethius.

The theme of the Seven Liberal Arts is no less frequently rehearsed in literature than in the plastic arts. At the time of Charlemagne, Theodulf, bishop of Orleans, despicts them in his Latin poem on the Liberal Arts in much the same manner as Martianus. Some time before 1107, Baudri, the abbot of Bourgueil, published a famous poem describing the opulent chamber of the Countess Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, whose bed is elaborately decorated with figures of the Seven Arts. In the late-twelfth century, Alan of Lille, perhaps the greatest of the medieval Latin poets, depicts them again in his Platonizing allegorical epic, Anticlaudianus.


Since the Anticlaudianus rehearses so many of the themes and topoi to which we will be returning, another Reader’s Digest summary is in order here.

The mythic pretext of the action is the realization by the Goddess Natura that her works, especially her human ones, are somewhat defective, and her ardent, desire, therefore, to collaborate in the creation of the perfect man. To assist her in this project, she calls down the Virtues from heaven to the garden-paradise in which she dwells, which Alan describes in terms of the classical myth of the Golden Age (another ubiquitous literary topos).

When Nature tells the Virtues of her aspiration to create the “divine man”, Prudence endorses the enterprise enthusiastically, but points out that while they can assist in the fashioning of the body, his soul must be created directly by God. Reason then recommends the sensible course of action: Prudence must be appointed Nature’s ambassador to heaven to petition God for a soul.

She initially demurs, protesting in epic fashion that she is unworthy of this adventure, until Concord addresses the assembly, advising that it must achieve perfect unity: for if she had not at the beginning of things bound the warring elements together in love and harmony, all would have reverted to mutual aggression and the world would have collapsed again into chaos. Thus the poet disposes of another obligatory philosophical topos, and thus the Virtues agree to combine their efforts to persuade Prudence to accept the charge.

When they do, Prudence relents. Then, like Martianus’ De Nuptiis, like Dante’s Comedy in the next century, and on the model of innumerable passages in Plato, the principle motive of the Anticlaudianus becomes the journey to heaven in quest of knowledge of the eternal and immutable ideas, the exemplars and causes of all things as they reside in the Nous, the Mind of God.

To mount through the heavenly spheres on her ascent to the Infinite, Prudence needs a chariot, surpassing any known in history. And too construct and provision this marvelous conveyance, Reason summons the Seven Liberal Arts.

First comes Grammar, last Astronomy, each fashioning a different component of the chariot, the attire and accoutrements of each described and allegorically interpreted in elaborate detail, and each discoursing at length on the lore of her subject and the lives and works of its most famous authorities.

Alan devotes, in fact, almost a thousand lines and two full books of his nine-book epic to the description of the Seven Liberal Arts.


There are other important sevens (the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse, Seven Hills of Rome, Seven Wise Men, Seven Wonders of the World), all of which were subjects of moral and philosophical commentary; but we can only mention them here.

And then there were eight.