Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Philosophy presents the seven liberal arts
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    As a representation of the allegorical figure of Philosophy in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the woman is dignified and powerful with her royal crown and rich attire. She holds a book in her right hand and a scepter in her left, following the description given by Boethius. Leading up to the book is a ladder, an allegorical representation of the seven liberal arts, whose rungs are grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, from the bottom to the top.

    The opening prose section of the Consolation of Philosophy describes Philosophy’s robe as decorated with Greek letters ? below and T above, the two levels being connected with steps like a ladder. Hence, the representation of the ladder was not an uncommon way to illustrate the seven liberal arts in the Middle Ages. The picture of a ladder captures several crucial features of the discipline that Philosophy embodies in accordance with Boethius’ text. It shows that the seven liberal arts are internal to Philosophy: they allow the ascensions from a lower to a higher domain of philosophy, i.e., from praxis to theoria, the progress which is itself achievable through disciplined study step by step. According to the distinction that Boethius made clear himself, although not displayed in this particular picture, the Greek letters pi and theta are generally understood as symbols for the progress from practical to speculative philosophy.

    The seven liberal arts, appearing as the rungs of the ladder in the painting, were the basic studies taught in medieval universities. Based on pedagogical texts from ancient Greece and Rome, the program of studies provided both intellectual and moral development. The trivium, or “three roads” trained students in the foundational disciplines of grammar, rhetoric (the study of oratory and argumentation) and dialectic (the study of logic). Students were then prepared for the quadrivium, the “four roads” based on concepts of number: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. The seven liberal arts first trained students in language, then in mathematical branches of knowledge and at the uppermost level in science and philosophy.

    Given that the trivium is prior to and provides the base of the quadrivium, the representation of the rungs of the ladder accords with this sequence proceeding from the lower to the higher studies. However, with regard to the specific order within the quadrivium, scholars argue that this picture does not represent the standard order. For, in the first book of the De Arithmetica, as one of the philosophers who shaped the development of the liberal arts, Boethius outlines for students the proper way of the quadrivium, its purpose, and the necessary sequence of its disciplines: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. But in this picture, we see that the positions of music and geometry are reversed and hence a poorly ordered diagram. In fact, although Boethius himself made clear the order in which the liberal arts should be studied, in the iconographic representation of the liberal arts the order of the quadrivium only gradually made itself clear.

    Boethius composed the Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution. As a dialogue with verse interludes, the work consists of conversation between a personification of Philosophy as a commanding woman and a despondent Boethius. Philosophy argues with Boethius rationally to show that he has lost nothing of true value in his fall from power and that the human world is divinely ordered despite appearances. Unlike worldly goods such as riches, power, and pleasure, the true good, which is what we really seek, fulfills our desires. Evil-doers have only the semblance of power: they are weak and punish themselves through their wicked activities. At the end of the dialogue, Philosophy answers Boethius’ question on why God’s foreknowledge does not mean that the future is fixed. Philosophy explains that in his eternity God knows past, present, and future in the way we know the present; we do not, for example, determine the result of a chariot race by watching it.

    The allegorical representation of philosophy as a woman is in some way curious, given the way Boethius’ Philosophy presents herself. The notion of philosophical purity and perfection has dominated scholars’ understanding of Boethius' Philosophy. Boethius himself associates philosophy with "pure wisdom," the "pure mind," and the "purity of nature" in his first commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge. Yet here resides precisely the complexities of Philosophy’s appearance, i.e., the tension between a rational male mind and a material female body, or between intellectual purity and material penetrability. In fact, this led to a shift in the iconography of Philosophy in the late medieval manuscripts, when her iconography has changed from the pi, theta, and ladder central to her early iconography to material and feminine vulnerabilities, conveyed through the symbolism of her torn garment.

    In terms of the manuscript itself, the start of the text is marked visually in various ways including colors, capitals and pictures (with a drawing of Boethius awakened by Philosophy preceding the full-color painting of Philosophy). The style marks a transitional period between the Romanesque and the Gothic. There is an increased interest in physicality. The figure of Philosophy conveys a solidity and weight. Her rounded face is distinctive and striking. The manuscript comes from an institutional library in the twelfth century, possibly a monastery or a cathedral school, likely in eastern France. The elaborate decoration and generous spacing between verse lines, thickly filled with the explanations of words with commentaries written in the larger margins, testify to the time and resources deployed in its creation.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Boethius, Philosopher- De Consolatione Philosophiae Classical Influences Education Liberal Arts Personification Philosophy
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 12
  • Date: circa 1160-1180
  • Related Work: Digitized view of MS 1253, Leipzig University Library.
    Philosophy, English, last quarter of the 10th century, Boethius, De consolation philosophiae, Cambridge University, Trinity College, MS O.3.7 (1179), fol. 1r.
    Philosophy and Boethius, German, 13th century, Peter Comestor, Sermons, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, BSB, Clm, 2599, fol. 106v.
    Philosophy holding the spheres, Netherlands, last quarter of the 15th century, Augustine, De civitate Dei, British Library, Royal 14 D 1, fol. 337v.
  • Current Location: Leipzig, Leipzig University Library, Ms 1253, 3r
  • Original Location: Eastern France
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Ink; Red ink;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 25.5/16/
  • Inscription: Inscribed on the ladder Philosophy holds: Grammatica. Dialectica. Rethorica. Arithmetica. Geometria. Musica. Astronomia. [grammar; dialectic; rhetoric; arithmetic; geometry; music; astronomy]
  • Related Resources:

    Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Harvard University Press, 2008.

    Cleaver, Laura. Education in Twelfth-Century Art and Architecture: Images of Learning in Europe, c.1100-1220. Boydell & Brewer, 2016.

    Cropp, G.M. "The Occitan Boecis, the Medieval French Tradition of the Consolatio Philosophiae and Philosophy's Gown." Études de langue et de littérature médiévales offertes à Peter T. Ricketts. Edited by D. Billy and A. Buckley. Brepols, 2005. Pages 255–266.

    Denny-Brown, Andrea. "How Philosophy Matters: Death, Sex, Clothes, and Boethius." Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Clothwork, and Other Cultural Imaginings. Edited by E. Jane Burns. Palgrave, 2004. Pages 177-191.

    Donato, Anthony. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as a Product of Late Antiquity. Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Gibson, Margaret T. "Illustrating Boethius: Carolingian and Romanesque Manuscripts." Medieval Manuscripts of the Latin Classics: Production and Use. Proceedings of the Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500. Edited by Claudine A. Chavannes-Mazel and Margaret M. Smith. Anderson-Lovelace, 1996, pages 118-129.

    Masi, Michael. "Boethius and the Iconography of the Liberal Arts." Latomus 33, 1 (1974): 57-75.