The Iconography of the Virtues
In the 4th century Prudentius's Psy­cho­ma­chia adopted the classical practice of personifying moral qualities as female figures. This approach proved to be highly popular with writers and artists throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.1 In the art, each virtue's personification was typically identified by some traditional attribute or action.

THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES

The "theological" virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity were an especially important subject because of I Corinthians 13:13, "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." Charity is traditionally pictured with one child at her breast and another at her feet, as in the second picture at right. She will sometimes be included in images of saints (example).

The attribute for Faith is a chalice, as in the first picture at right. For Hope it may be an anchor, wings, or flowers.

THE CARDINAL VIRTUES

Another important set comprised the "cardinal" virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance. The identifiers most often associated with them are –
  1. Justice: A pair of scales.
  2. Temperance: Pouring liquid from a smaller vessel into a larger one (third picture at right).
  3. Fortitude: Armor or some other military equipment; a lion.
  4. Prudence: Snakes and/or a mirror
Even Tarot cards representing these four qualities use these same identifiers.

ARRAYS

Many works arrange the Virtues into an array, such as at the tomb of Peter Martyr, with its life-size figures of the theological and cardinal virtues plus "Obedience," or the three theological virtues along the bottom of Tintoretto's Baptism of Christ. The selection and iconography of the array of virtue figures at Sant'Alvise, Venice, seem intended for the edification of the nuns of the convent attached to that church.

Prepared in 2020 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2021-07-01.


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Faith with her chalice vanquishes idolatry: Andrea Pozzo, 1697-1700. (See the description page.)


Charity with her nurslings in Zadar Cathedral. (See the description page.)


Temperance pouring into a vessel: Detail of the tomb of St. Peter Martyr, 1336-39. (See the description page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • Second half of the 14th century: Charity is pictured as chief among the virtues in this fresco celebrating St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 1547-51: Faith with her chalice and Charity with her nurslings in a detail from The Cáceres Altarpiece.
  • 1620: Charity suckles her child in Heaven in this detail from Peter Candid's Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary.

NAMES

  • The "cardinal" virtues get their name from Latin cardo, "a hinge." The idea is that all other moral virtues "hinge on" these four.

NOTES

1 Murray, s.v. "Virtues and Vices." Also see the Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Virtue" and "Cardinal Virtues."

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