III.3 The Seven Liberal Arts

III.3 The Seven Liberal Arts

Image 1. Title page: Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica (1503). Source: Tomash Collection Images.
The Margarita philosophica (Philosophical Pearl) by Gregor Reisch is a popular survey of the arts or philosophy course first published in Freiberg im Breisgau in 1503.  Its title page provides a symbolic representation of its content.
At the centre of the circle stands the winged figure of Philosophy herself. Her three heads, each facing in a different direction, reflect the typical representation of prudence (a key virtue of moral philosophy), which draws on the experience of the past to act prudently in the present to promote future wellbeing. Reflecting the classic description of philosophy by Boethius (who canonised the conception of the seven liberal arts), she holds an open book in her right hand and a sceptre in her left, symbolising the relationship of knowledge and power.
At her feet are smaller female figures representing the seven liberal arts, whose attributes correspond with the labels on the lower half of the circle: to the left, logic is identified by a counting gesture, rhetoric by her scroll, grammar by her primer or hornbook, arithmetic (seated in the middle) by an abacus, music by her lyre, geometry by a compass, and astronomy by her armillary sphere.
Philosophy’s dress is fronted by a panel on which a ladder rises up from the seven liberal arts to the loftier discipline of philosophy: drawing again on Boethius’s description, the Greek letter Pi at the bottom of the ladder (ϖ) stands for practical or moral philosophy; the Greek letter Theta (Θ mistakenly given as τ) at the top represents theoretical philosophy (natural philosophy and metaphysics).  The upper half of the circle announces ‘the tripartite philosophy of human affairs: natural, rational, and moral.  Outside the circle are canonical authorities for these three types of philosophy: below, the classical authorities Aristotle and Seneca for natural and moral philosophy, respectively; and above, four Church Fathers (St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Jerome, and St. Ambrose) for ‘philosophia divina / rationalis’ or theology.

Image 2. Andrew Shiva, East side of Canterbury Quad, St John's College, Oxford; 15 April 2014.  Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0.  Source: Wikipedia.

The seven liberal arts were a common motif of architectural sculpture across medieval Europe: a particularly famous example is the series of hexagonal low-relief carvings on Giotto’s belltower in Florence cathedral.  It was also the subject of innumerable illuminated manuscripts, paintings and engravings well into the seventeenth century.  The most prominent example in Oxford is in the colonnade on the east range of Canterbury Quadrangle, St John’s College, constructed between 1631 and 1635 (Image 2).  The spandrels between the arches contain female heads representing the Seven Liberal Arts: Astronomy, Geometry, Music, Arithmetic, Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar (high res image available here). On the opposite side of the quadrangle are heads representing the Seven Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Charity.

Credits: Howard Hotson (May 2018), drawing for the first image on Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa, Natural philosophy epitomised: Books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch's Philosophical Pearl (1503) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), pp. xxxii-xxxv.