Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Virtues and Vices in Renaissance Art

When one of my colleagues at the Italy Roundtable suggested the topic ‘Virtues and Vices‘ for our monthly thematic article, I thought “Oh, that is easy, there are tons of examples of Virtues and Vices in Renaissance art. I wonder what the others will write about, since this is clearly just an art historical topic.” Well I have had the privilege of reading their posts already, since I took my get out of jail free card this July and am late with my article. They have been very creative and funny, and no art history is mentioned at all! And in the meantime I found out that there are not nearly as many examples of this iconography in Italian art as I first thought. Some obvious examples come to mind, but really it was more popular in Northern Europe than down here.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction of sloth in the Land of Cockaigne (1567) is much more entertaining than Italian Renaissance depictions.

Any art history 101 student comes across the virtues and vices, but if asked to name them one by one, is liable to fail the test. Myself included… I always have to look it up. And when I see the list, I am reminded of when Carrie, my wonderful friend in the Masters’ program at SUF, and I looked it up and spent time trying to come up with examples of each, which resulted in hours of hilarity then and giggles still now every time we think of… sloth, or accidia. We admit to being rather odd.

So for the record: There are seven virtues and seven vices, and each of these are divided into sub-groups of 3+4 – which are all significant numbers in the Christian tradition. The three Theological Virtues are faith, hope, and charity. Being theological they are more important (at least in religious circles). The four Cardinal Virtues derive from Plato’s Republic and are somewhat more difficult to interpret: temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude.

The vices are three spiritual: pride, envy, and wrath; followed by the much more fun corporal sins of sloth (also called accidia, which for some reason makes me giggle), avarice or greed, (which is slightly different from) gluttony, and finally, good ol’ lust.

Imaging these virtues and vices in Medieval and Renaissance art served to remind viewers what to do and what not to do, like a menu of behaviour. But there are times in which it was more popular to use them – especially in their more traditional, catalogue-like form, and other moments that they are not so present, perhaps due more to the evolution of artistic style than to society’s lack of need of a reminder of how to behave.

In late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, we see allegorical female figures lined up and with attributes to represent each action. A century and a half later, we’re hard pressed to find examples in Italy, while in Northern Europe the virtues and vices were quite popular, but it was common to represent them acted out by people, metaphorically rather than through the stricter form of the allegorical figure. This can be related to the North’s penchant for genre painting that was forced by Lutheran rejection of representational religious images.

In chronological order, some of the first virtues and vices in Italian art are by Giotto – groundbreaker that he is. In Padova’s Arena Chapel (1306), we often concentrate on the narrative scenes, and forget to study the grisaille allegorical figures that catalogue human action, good and bad, that are paired off against each other. For reasons that I do not know, he eschews the traditional 7 vices and… makes up his own? They are Despair, Infidelity, Envy, Injustice, Folly, Inconstancy and Anger. Perhaps they better contrast with the virtues.

giotto charity and envy

Charity vs Envy – Giotto, Arena Chapel. Image source: www.endegor.com

giotto hope desperation

Hope vs. Desperation – Giotto, Arena Chapel. Image source: www.endegor.com

In Florence, we have allegorical representations of virtues in the most dogmatic of all paintings in the city, the frescoes in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. This period, alternately associated with post-plague depression and Dominican zealousy, loved to catalogue things as black or white (pun intended).

Left wall of Spanish Chapel: The triumph of st. Aquinas

Above the enthroned St. Thomas of Aquinas in this fresco we can see the three theological virtues in red, white and green, and the four cardinal ones below them (Dominicans also loved numbers and hierarchic order).

Around the same time, while not exactly a virtues and vices series, we get the representation of some of the undesireable actions performed by humans in the hell scene of the Strozzi Chapel painted by Nardo di Cione (Orcagna’s brother; Orcagna did the altarpiece) in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. You will have to go see for yourself since detail photos are hard to come by (and they do not permit photography inside the church any more).

Nardo di Cione, hell scene in Strozzi Chapel, SMN

In fact, vices do appear acted out in other hell scenes, too, and are rather more fun to look at than virtues, and certainly than straight allegorical figures in general. For example, the gluttons being forced to eat in Hell in Taddeo di Bartolo’s fresco in San Gimignano is similar to the later, Northern European image of sloth pictured above.

gluttons in hell

Taddeo di Bartolo, Gluttons in Hell, San Gimignano

As Renaissance style evolved towards naturalism, lining up any kind of allegorical figures, including those of virtues and vices, went out of style. Occasionally you will see an allegory of one or another virtue, or a metaphorical representation of a vice. Usually these are very complex panel paintings that get art historians spilling ink for centuries. Perhaps the public, after centuries of learning the standard representations, was deemed ready to deal with more difficult interpretations.

Mantegna did some crazy allegories while under the employ of Isabella d’Este. His drawing in the British Museum of Virtues and Vices is an allegory of the fall of humanity, beautifully explained here. In the glory of full colour is the Louvre painting entitled ‘Minerva expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue’ in which a cast of shady, deformed characters are shooed out of Minerva’s virtuous hot tub, which has recently been explicated on the fun website WTF Art History.

mantegna Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue

Mantegna, Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, circa 1500 (Louvre)

The strangeness of this image comes nowhere near that of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which incidentally is one of the paintings that got me so into art history as a teenager.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights. Image: wikimedia

Vices, unquestionably, are more fun than Virtues, which we must not forget were essentially represented in just about all Renaissance Italian art. For example, every portrait of a woman was, either explicitly or not, a portrait of virtue through beauty and chastity. The representation of each, either in metaphorical or allegorical form, served its social purpose in this period, at least until art, and society, decided to focus on other topics.

Or… where did this iconography go? Anyone got a better conclusion?

Italy Roundtable posts on virtues and Vices

  • Gloria gets us giggling with Maledetti Toscani and her reflections on her own peoples’ character traits.
  • Jessica admits to some guilty character vices in her love of cheesy Italian music in ‘What the hell am I listening to
  • Rebecca is, to date, as remiss as I am in producing a post this July. I think we are all too busy!

The Roundtable will be back in September 2012. In the meantime why don’t you get a kick out of past posts?

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.