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 The "theological" virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity were an especially important subject because of their listing in I Corinthians 13:13. Another important set comprised the "cardinal" virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance.

In the art, each virtue's personification was typically identified by some traditional attribute or action. The identifiers most often associated with the cardinal virtues are –
  1. Justice: A pair of scales.
  2. Temperance: Pouring liquid from a smaller vessel into a larger one (first 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.

For Faith and Charity the attributes are a chalice and a child at the breast, as in the second and third pictures at right. Hope is less consistent. Her attribute may be wings, an anchor, a stalk of flowers, or simply a heavenward gaze.

Sometimes a Virtue stands alone in a larger composition, as in the second picture at right. But many works arrange the Virtues into an array, such as at the tomb of Peter Martyr, with its life-size figures of all seven theological and cardinal virtues, plus "Obedience."

Prepared in 2020 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.

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


Charity nursing a baby: detail of an Assumption in Munich. (See the description page.)


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

MORE IMAGES

  • 1547-51: Faith with her chalice and Charity with her nurslings in a detail from The Cáceres Altarpiece.
  • Undated: Statue of Charity with her nurslings in Zadar Cathedral.

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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