Day 59 – Virtues vs Vices

Giotto, The Cardinal Virtues, and opposing Vices, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

We have spent the last two Saturdays looking at the Theological Virtues, and their opposing Vices (Picture Of The Day 45 & 52)– and this week we will put together the remaining imagery along the lowest level of the Scrovegni Chapel.

All eight of the images we will look at today are contained within this one photograph, although it is hard to pick them out. The Last Judgement (POTD 38) is behind us, and we are looking towards the altar. At the very bottom left and right you can see the lowest level of the frescoes, trompe l’oeil paintings of marbled panels framed in green, passing two side altars which mark a transition from the main ‘body’ of the chapel, originally accessible to the public congregation, to an area associated with the patrons themselves, the Scrovegni. Just before the chancel arch there is a door on the left, which originally gave access to the Scrovegni Palace – nowadays this is where you enter. Destroyed in the 19th Century, the Palace used to run alongside the left side of the chapel, which is why there are no windows there. The light comes from the windows on the opposite side – the side of the Virtues, interestingly enough – and from behind us, where there is a window just above Jesus in the Last Judgement. Before you get to those side altars, though, and directly under the decorative strip which crosses the blue sky of the ceiling – which marks a point half-way along the chapel – there are two imaginary sculptures – Justice on our right, and Injustice on our left. Remember that Hell is behind our left hand looking in this direction, while the Blessed, going up to Heaven, are behind our right. The next Vice and Virtue are on the walls next to the side altars, with two more pairs beyond.

Justice – we’ll see her below – is in the middle of the seven Virtues painted on the right-hand wall and serves to balance them all. Reading from left to right, are Prudence, who is at the foot of the Chancel arch, FortitudeTemperance and Justice. They are the Four Cardinal Virtues, sometimes seen as the ‘secular’ set. They were identified by Plato as the virtues exhibited by members of the ideal Republic, and they were brought into Christian theology by Sts Ambrose and Augustine, two of the Doctors of the Church we mentioned yesterday (POTD 58). 

Prudence makes sensible decisions based on knowledge and understanding – expressed here by her self-knowledge. She sits at a desk – so is undoubtedly learned – and in her left hand she holds a convex mirror, essential for reflecting on herself and learning from her past experience. You have to be careful with symbols though – if you spend too much time looking at a mirror, you would be considered vain. Indeed, the mirror is also a symbol of Vanity. Hers is a measured existence, and in her right hand she holds a pair of compasses, perfect to plot the right course, and to chart all possibilities. Plato associated Prudence with reason, and with the ruling classes. Both Prudence and Fortitude next to her look to the right. They are looking towards the Last Judgement, but also towards anyone entering the Chapel through the West door – presumably they want to catch the visitors’ eyes, and recommend their own personal qualities. I am intrigued to think what Prudence could see in her mirror – apart from her own face, that is. A glimpse of the altar, maybe? Or, if she tilted it up a little, the Virgin Mary, painted towards the top of the adjacent wall. I’m sure it is a deliberate choice to have her looking towards the Last Judgement while reflecting on the altar…

I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Fortitude. Plato associated her with man’s spirited nature, and with the warrior class. Giotto makes her a doughty dowager, armed for war: I’d keep out of the way of that stick. She holds a full-height shield which has spear heads embedded in it, and you can also see the bolts of the handle she is holding on the other side. It is decorated with a lion, which, in other manifestations, would be one of her main symbols, and she puts the ‘her’ into Hercules: she is wearing the pelt of the Nemean Lion, slain by the ancient hero as one of his labours. Its muzzle is over her head, while the legs are tied around her neck and waist. I’d feel safer, though, with TemperanceFortitude’s pacifist sister. Associated with moderation or self-restraint, she has sheathed her sword, and is altogether self-contained. In other images she waters down the wine – not a virtue I’ve ever been guilty of, I’m afraid. Plato thought that, in his ideal Republic, this quality should be possessed by the farmers and craftsmen – the producing classes – and I can’t help thinking that it smacks of an economy that the rulers need not have worried about…

Justice is unlike the other virtues – indeed, of the Cardinal Four, she is the chief, ruling the interaction of the classes, as far as Plato was concerned. She sits enthroned, and balances the entire wall, sitting as she does at the centre of the Chapel. The three trefoil sides of her gothic throne, and its sky blue background, make me think of Mary, Queen of Heaven – and Justice here is crowned. This was certainly an elision seen in Venice, which is not so far away. She holds the pans of her scales in either hand – but not the beam or connecting cords. And that’s because she, herself, is the balance. However, this concept was original enough, and unusual enough, for someone to find it uncomfortable, to the extent that they tried to sketch in the rest of the expected scales. In her right hand an angel leans forward to reward the good (sadly lost in a damage to the fresco), and in her left, a second prepares to strike a kneeling malefactor, distributive and retributive justice respectively. 

Opposing these four we see Injustice (he’s below), Anger, Inconstancy and Foolishness. Looking at this wall, the Last Judgement – and the entrance – are towards our left, and that is the direction that most characters look. From the right, this time, so moving away from the altar, Foolishness looks foolish, its that simple. Waving a stick, with a crown of feathers, and ragged clothes, this could be a medieval Fool, perhaps, but not a witty one, not with the insight we see in Shakespeare. Inconstancy – lacking the solidity, the firmness, the dependability of Fortitude, rides a wheel along a sloping marbled floor, out of control and, thus, completely unreliable. Anger – or Wrath – the only Vice who is also a Deadly Sin – rents her clothes, and lets her hair run free. They are a pretty unattractive bunch, which is probably just as well: we wouldn’t want to be like them. Let’s compare Injustice with his opposite.

She sits comfortable, serene and secure, in the decorative elegance of her ecclesiastically-flavoured throne: she embodies the scales of Justice. He looks away – towards the final Judgement, with a billhook and sword, but his domain is overgrown – no husbandry here. His throne is a fortified gateway to a walled city, but the walls are crumbling with Injustice’s neglect, and the floor is eroding away.  These two pivotal personifications each have a predella – an image often seen at the bottom of an altarpiece, illuminating the image above. In both cases they are painted to look like relief sculptures. 

Hers, above, shows a courtly couple out hunting with their dogs, safe in the ordered countryside; a group of ladies dancing; and well-provisioned travellers arriving from the right. His, below, shows a pair of soldiers opposite the courtly couple; the dancers face a rape; and a traveller has been murdered. If any of you know Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Judgement in Siena, these tiny paintings say what Lorenzetti says, some 33 years later, across one and a half walls. 

So now we know where we stand – and as we enter through the West Door (which, sadly, we no longer do) we have the same view as Jesus, although somewhat lower. We can bless the Virtues on our right hand, and condemn the Vices on our left – the former will lead us to Heaven, the latter to Hell, all laid out behind us. But to get to Heaven the Virtues will not suffice – we must be forgiven. And so we need Jesus… but if he is to be born, he must have a Mother, so she must be born. But first, she must be conceived… so that is where we shall start next week!  Don’t worry, it’s perfectly respectable. Immaculate, even.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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