Planets and the seven liberal arts

Ancients were very fond of the number seven.
God made the world in seven days and the city of Rome lays on seven hills, the same Wisdom is founded on seven pillars.

“Wisdom builded her house;

She has hewn out her seven pillars.” ((Proverbs, 9.1))

In a previous post we saw the seven traditional virtues on which is based Christian faith, now we will see their “pagan” side, the seven liberal arts and their iconography.

The Liberal Arts- from “liber“= free, but even from “liber“=book- are the arts proper to a free man, which derive from  his intellectual activity and where mind and spirit are required  because their goal is wisdom while on the contrary  Mechanical Arts have as their goal an income.

Liberal Arts, or Artes liberales as they were called, were originally Alexandrian, but they received their definitive version in the late Antiquity.

This is the list given by Isidore of Seville  ((Etymologiae)) – translation from Latin exercise book for Italian students, I found it among Troy and Caesar tales  🙂

Liberal Arts’ disciplines  are seven. Firstly Grammar, which is the Art of eloquence. The second is Rhetoric, which because of the elegance and the richness of its eloquence is considered very needed in public affairs. The third one, dialectic or Logic, because with cunning reasons discriminates truth from lie.
The fourth one is Arithmetic, which contains the causes and divisions of numbers.  The fifth one is Music, which includes poems and songs. The sixth one is Geometry concerning the dimensions and measures of the Earth, the seventh is Astronomy, relating to the law of the stars.

But  the most famous version was Martianus Capella one,  the first one to depict them as the seven maids Mercury gave as a gift to his bride Philology for their wedding party.  ((De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii et de septem Artibus liberalibus libri novem))

Grammar has a rod in order to punish children mistakes; Rhetoric has the sword of her tongue; Logic carries the Snake symbol of Prudence and the Flowers, like truth hidden between grass; Arithmetic is a wonderful woman with an hook in her hand; Geometry controls motion, time and weight, the Music is playing while Astronomy has the celestial sphere in her hand.

They were generally divided into Trivium (Grammar. Rhetoric and Logic) based on the knowledge of the language and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy) were based on the knowledge of reality through measurement systems.

As they were considered as the foundation of every knowledge, one of the oldest representations is the one we can find in Chartres Cathedral in France,  one of the most famous Gothic churches and UNESCO site.

The Liberal arts are around Mary, to whom the church is dedicated, as Sedes Sapientiae, i.e. Throne of Wisdom.

Maria sedes sapientiae
Maria sedes sapientiae

Ptolemy and astronomy, looking at sky
Ptolemy and astronomy, looking at sky

Obviously we cannot miss the link between the seven arts and the seven planets, as it is explained by Dante in his Convivio. ((Convivio, translated by Richard Lansing, 1998 ))

As was stated above, then, the seven heavens nearest to us are those of the planets; next come two heavens above them, which are in motion, and one above them all, which is still. To the first seven correspond the seven sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, namely Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology. To the eighth sphere, namely the Starry Heaven, corresponds natural science, which is called Physics, and the first science, which is called Metaphysics; to the ninth sphere corresponds Moral Science; and to the still heaven corresponds Divine Science, which is called Theology. And the reason why this is so must be briefly considered.

I say that the heaven of the Moon resembles Grammar because it may be compared to it; for if the Moon is closely examined, two things will be seen peculiar to it which are not seen in the other stars: one is the shadow in it, which is nothing but the rarity of its substance in which the rays of the Sun cannot terminate and be reflected back as in its other parts; the other is the variation of its luminosity, which shines now on one side, now on the other, according as the Sun looks upon it. These two properties Grammar possesses; for because of its infinitude the rays of reason are not terminated, especially in the particular of words; and it shines now on this side, now on that, insofar as certain words, certain declensions, and certain constructions are now in use which formerly were not, and many were formerly in use which will yet be in use again, as Horace says at the beginning of his Poetics, when he says: “Many words shall be born which have long since fallen out of use.”

The heaven of Mercury may be compared to Dialectics because of two properties: for Mercury is the smallest star of heaven, because the magnitude of its diameter is not more than 232 miles, according to Alfraganus, who says it is 1/28th of the diameter of the earth, which is 6500 miles; the other property is that in its passage it is veiled by the rays of the sun more than any other star. These two properties are found in Dialectics, for Dialectics is less in substance than any other science, for it is entirely constituted by and contained within that text alone which is found in the Old Art and in the New; and its passage is veiled more than that of any science, in that it proceeds by a more sophistical and polemical mode of argument than any other.

The heaven of Venus may be compared to Rhetoric because of two properties: one is the brightness of its aspect, which is sweeter to look upon than that of any other star; the other is its appearance now in the morning, now in the evening. And these two properties are found in Rhetoric: for Rhetoric is sweeter than all of the other sciences, since this is what it principally aims at; and it appears in the morning when the rhetorician speaks before the face of his hearer, and it appears in the evening (that is, behind) when the rhetorician speaks through writing, from a distance.

The heaven of the Sun may be compared to Arithmetic because of two properties: one is that all the other stars are informed by its light; the other is that the eye cannot look at it. And these two properties are found in Arithmetic: for by its light all sciences are illuminated, because all their subjects are considered under some numerical aspect, and in considering them we always proceed by number. For example, in Natural Science, the subject is a body in motion, which body in motion has in itself the principle of continuity, and this has in itself the principle of infinite number; and its foremost consideration is to consider the principles of natural things, which are three–namely matter, privation, and form–in which we perceive this numerical aspect. Number exists not only in all of them together, but also, upon careful reflection, in each one individually; for this reason Pythagoras, as Aristotle says in the first book of the Physics, laid down even and odd as the principles of natural things, considering all things to have numerical aspect. The other property of the Sun is also seen in number, of which Arithmetic is the science: the eye of the intellect cannot look upon it, because number insofar as it is considered in itself is infinite, and this we cannot comprehend.

The heaven of Mars may be compared to Music because of two properties: one is its most beautiful relation, for in counting the moving heavens, from whichever we begin, whether from the lowest or the highest, this heaven of Mars is the fifth and the middlemost of them all, that is, of the first, second, third, and fourth pairs. The other, as Ptolemy says in the Quadripartitus, is that Mars dries things out and incinerates them because its heat is like that of fire; and this is why it appears fiery in color, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the density or rarity of the vapors which accompany it, which often ignite by themselves, as is established in the first book of Meteorics. For this reason Albumasar says that the ignition of these vapors signifies the death of kings and the changing of kingdoms, because they are effects of the lordship of Mars, and this is why Seneca says that at the death of the Emperor Augustus he saw on high a ball of fire. This is also why in Florence, at the beginning of its ruin, there was seen in the sky in the shape of a cross a great quantity of these vapors which accompany the star of Mars. And these two properties are found in Music, which consists entirely of relations, as we see in harmonized words and in songs, whose harmony is so much the sweeter the more the relation is beautiful, which relation is the principal beauty in this science, because it is its principal aim. Moreover, Music attracts to itself the human spirits, which are, as it were, principally vapors of the heart, so that they almost completely cease their activity; this happens likewise to the entire soul when it hears music, and the virtue of all of them, as it were, runs to the spirit of sense which receives the sound.

The heaven of Jupiter may be compared to Geometry because of two properties: one is that it moves between two heavens that are antithetical to its fine temperance, namely that of Mars and that of Saturn; consequently Ptolemy says, in the book referred to, that Jupiter is a star of temperate constitution between the cold of Saturn and the heat of Mars; the other is that among all the stars it appears white, almost silvery. And these things are found in the science of Geometry. Geometry moves between two things antithetical to it, namely the point and the circle–and I mean “circle” in the broad sense of anything round, whether a solid body or a surface; for, as Euclid says, the point is its beginning, and, as he says, the circle is its most perfect figure, which must therefore be conceived as its end. Therefore Geometry moves between the point and the circle as between its beginning and end, and these two are antithetical to its certainty; for the point cannot be measured because of its indivisibility, and it is impossible to square the circle perfectly because of its arc, and so it cannot be measured exactly. Geometry is furthermore most white insofar as it is without taint of error and most certain both in itself and in its handmaid, which is called Optics.

The heaven of Saturn has two properties by which it may be compared to Astrology: one is the slowness of its movement through the 12 signs, for according to the writings of the astrologers, a time of more than 29 years is required for its revolution; the other is that it is high above all the other planets. And these two properties are found in Astrology: for in completing its circle (that is to say, to master this science) a very great span of time passes, both because of its handmaids, which are more numerous than those of any of the above-mentioned sciences, and because of the experience required in it for making proper judgments. Furthermore, it is far higher than all the others, since, as Aristotle says at the beginning of On the Soul, a science is high in nobility by virtue of the nobility of its subject and by virtue of its certainty; and this one, more than any of those mentioned above, is high and noble because of its high and noble subject, which regards the movement of the heaven, and high and noble because of its certainty, which is flawless, as coming from a most perfect and regular principle. And if anyone believes that there is a flaw in it, it does not pertain to the science, but as Ptolemy says, it results from our negligence, and so must be attributed to that.

The famous traditional scholar Titus Burckhardt (( Studies in Comparative Religion n.3, 1969)) summarized Dante’s text in the following way:

Obviously Liberal Arts were painted in many frescoes and it is impossible to list them. This is the version from tarot deck known as Mantegna.

Arts in Mantegna tarot deck
Arts in Mantegna tarot deck

But the gentle author of this blog loves Astrologia painted by Raffaello in Vaticano’s Stanza della Segnatura, in a slightly different version of the arts included.

Raffaello, from the ceiling of Stanza della Segnatura
Raffaello, from the ceiling of Stanza della Segnatura

Written by Margherita Fiorello @ year 2009



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