2011 | Orvieto, Rome and Florence


We live in an era famously characterized by the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre as “After Virtue,” a time often given to unreflective utilitarianism in ethics, me-and-mine-first libertarianism in politics, and shrill distemper in public discussion. Is this the best of all possible worlds, to quote Voltaire’s character Pangloss? Or, does it pay dividends to engage, respectfully but not uncritically, the moral philosophy of the premodern world?

Through some joint readings and a 10-day pilgrimage, the purpose of this trip was to explore how medieval and Renaissance notions of the four cardinal virtues, the three theological virtues, and the seven deadly sins apply to a twenty-first century moral landscape. Participants read Dante's Purgatorio and two texts by German-Thomist, Josef Pieper: A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart and The Four Cardinal Virtues. Based at the Monastery San Paolo, home to Gordon's Orvieto program, alumni were led by Tal Howard, history professor and director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum, on day trips to Orvieto, Rome and Florence.

Admission to Santa Croce and Scholarly Contemplation (5 Euros): Discovering the Virtues in Italy

Hilary Sherratt (09-10)

When we walk into the church, our footsteps clatter into the hushed semi-darkness. We hear every intake of breath as a tourist wanders unprepared upon a fresco, discovers the tomb where Dante is not buried, and steps into a stream of Florentine afternoon sun straying over striped marble. 12th century dust floats through the air and catches in my throat, and I cough to myself as I search diligently for the monument to the East-West reconciliation work of the Council of Florence, and Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople. I pass the altar almost without realizing I am treading on the very stones where Popes and bishops celebrated the Eucharist.

It is here, by the table I should reverence, should honor, that I realize the ticket I am crumpling in my hand is the mark of large transition in these churches. This ticket cost about 5 euros. My entrance into this church requires payment, just as I pay to enter the Louvre in Paris or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Florentine government has purchased these churches and now exacts a price to see their insides. This is not necessarily unique to Florence: Europe is quickly filling with churches that have become museums to a religiosity now long past, filled with glass cases and plaques explaining the use of this or that ancient manuscript, Bible and chalice. In the places that were once religious pilgrimage sites there are now tour guides waving brightly colored flags above their heads to keep their group of visitors together. I crush the ticket into the pocket of my coat and keep walking, wondering at this transition.

A few days later our travel group sits in a circle in the library of Monastery San Paolo in the mountain town of Orvieto, Italy. We assemble our books before us like divining rods with which we will find the springs of virtue-filled water: Dante’s Purgatorio, Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues and A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. When we crack them open and begin to discuss the various concepts of prudentia and justitia and even the ever-intriguing virtue of temperance, I wonder if this is not another type of museum – an academic catalogue of a theology and philosophy of bygone days. We drift past the concepts, sometimes admiring, sometimes vehemently disagreeing, but there is a strong temptation to think of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope and love as merely another set of curios safely stored in glass cases. They live in Pieper’s Thomistic reflections and scholarly tongue, but are these virtues are discussed anywhere but a scholarly conversation on a scholarly trip to Italy? Are they relevant to a pluralistic world, where we must choose the narratives that bind us? What can Justice and Prudence say to that trump card of modern relativism: “Well, isn’t it nice that you see it that way?”

Yet despite their apparent academic aloofness, we found the virtues everywhere in Italy. When we began to look, Charity, Hope, Fortitude and their comrades lurked everywhere – on the baptistery doors of the Florentine duomo, carved into the pulpit of Santa Croce, on the ceiling of Raphael’s Stanze della Segnatura in Rome. Their female depictions appeared above us and around us at every turn; as if by coming to Italy to study the virtues we opened ourselves to the visibility of their presence. Through their appearing in these three places, we can glimpse the original place of the virtues in theological and moral conversation, and find a deeper way to unite scholarly conversation with churchly reflection.

Site Number One: The Baptistery Doors of the Duomo in Florence (Florence, Italy)

The south doors of the Baptistery of the Florence duomo are a series of panels made by Andrea Pisano. While most of the relief sculptures depict Biblical scenes, scenes of the faithful gone before us and the community of saints, the bottom eight relief sculptures are devoted to Pisano’s rendering of the cardinal and theological virtues. He adds Humility as a virtue to make an even number. The first virtue our group identifies is Prudence, depicted in this small square as a woman conversing with a snake. When we look closer, we see that she is also the two-faced Prudence, with an older male face protruding out of the back of her head. This is the Janus figure: one face toward the present and future, and one face to the past. The depiction of the snake, we muse, might have to do with cunning (for it says in Genesis that the serpent was the “most cunning” of all the creatures, cf. Gen. 3.1). The other seven sculptures have their own symbols, shield and sword for Justice, cross and chalice for Faith, Love with her cornucopia symbolizing abundance, and Temperance with her sheathed sword (symbolizing, we imagine, the ability to control one’s wrath).

What strikes me most about these virtues, however, is not their delicate rendering in bronze or the allegorical symbols that accompany them. I am most interested in where the virtues are found – on the doors of the Baptistery. Sofia Cavalletti writes in Living Liturgy: Sacramental Reflections that in the ancient rites of Baptism, “the catechumens went down into the baptismal pool which was considered both the tomb of the old person and the motherly womb of the church which gave birth to the new person” (57-58). The Baptistery in Florence is set outside the duomo itself, in keeping with the practices of baptism as the spiritual and physical entrance into the life of the Church, the new life in Christ. Some of the virtues are angled inward towards the Baptistery itself and others are facing outward, as if standing guard over the mysteries taking place inside. Their place on the baptistery doors suggests that the virtues are or ought to be considered part of the whole mystery of Christian life. They are intimately involved in the very process of transformation that takes place at baptism. “The doctrine of virtue,” Josef Pieper writes in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “has things to say about this human person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to” (xii). The sacrament of baptism concerns itself with these two things about the human person: our createdness, what kind of being we are and the new being, the new life in Christ that infuses, prompts, and restores us to the ends we were created to pursue.

The virtues, both classical and theological, emanate from and inform this question of what a human being is and ought to be. The rite of baptism is a defining act, an act that clarifies and declares the new life to which the virtues attune themselves. In the Anglican Baptismal liturgy, the priest prays the following after the baptism itself:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
orgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.

The gifts of an “inquiring and discerning heart”, and “the courage to will and to persevere,” and a “spirit to know and love God:” all these are gifts which virtue amplifies and guards. The gifts of baptism invite the pursuit of virtue. As we leave the fading bronze depictions of Justice, Temperance, Faith and Charity to continue our exploration of Florence, I glance back, trying to burn the memory of these virtues standing their guard at the doors of the baptistery. Their steady presence participates and emerges from the liturgy and the new life of baptism, intimately connected to the lifeblood of the church in the practice of sacraments.

Site Number Two: The Pulpit in Santa Croce (Florence, Italy)

Santa Croce is more of a mausoleum than a church. The tombs of beloved Italians – Machiavelli here, Galileo over there – line the dank room. I wonder as my hands shiver in my pockets whether anyone remembers this as anything but a burying ground for the poets and political geniuses of Dante’s beloved Florentine civilization. As I wander through the dimly lit passageways I stray across small crevices of stained-glass window and an occasional blaze of fresco painting, depicting the suffering of Christ or St. Francis receiving the stigmata. It is only when I hear Dr. Howard’s voice behind me that I turn to learn that we have stumbled upon the virtues again.

They lurk, carved in relief in the pulpit itself, a great stone tower growing up the side of the pews. We easily find Faith, Hope and Love holding the same symbols as the doors of the Baptistery. A few others we have a harder time identifying. We think we have found Justice, and possibly Prudence as well. As Ryan snaps a few detailed pictures, I gaze at the scene from a more distant camera lens. These virtues, identifiable or unidentifiable, support the pulpit, where the Word is preached. These virtues undergird in an architectural and physical way the preacher, and they are also turned outward toward the congregation, those who hear the Word.

Amid the quiet of marble, I wonder whether these sculptures also say something about the virtues in the life of the Church. The Liturgy of the Word, the preaching and exposition of the Gospels, forms the first half of the Catholic Mass service. When the priest creaked his way up those stairs for hundreds of sermons, these theological virtues stood beneath him, in support of the words he spoke. Josef Pieper writes in Faith, Hope and Love that, “If God has really spoken, then it is not only good to believe him; rather, the act of believing generates those things that in fact are goodness and perfection for man” (85). Listening to the Word of God requires faith, and this faith, found in attending to the Word, in fact generates “those things that in fact are goodness and perfection for man.” The virtue of Faith supports the pulpit because in the practice of faith we “partake of the divine life” (85) that is the message of God’s self-revelation.

It is perhaps unlikely that this pulpit was filled with sermons expounding on the virtues of faith, hope and love, but their artistic presence offers us another picture of their place in church life. We practice the virtues as we hear God’s Word spoken and as we respond to that self-revelation. As Pieper quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, “Thus the theological virtues flow back upon themselves in a sacred circle: one who is led to love by hope has therefore a more perfect hope, just as he also believes now more strongly than before” (104). We need the virtues in order to receive the Word, our faith strengthened by practice. These virtues, along with their less identifiable counterparts, are not only appropriate but essential to the life of the church in receiving and understanding the Word preached at this pulpit. Not only do the virtues undergird the preacher, but they also open our hearts and minds towards the truth, the reality of God’s revelation. We meander through the rest of the damp stone passageways and as we push open the heavy wooden doors into the gift shop, I wonder whether any of these “museum” visitors have noticed the rich theological life lurking on the pulpit.

Site Number 3: The Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Museums (Rome, Italy)

I am finally in a museum that, though once papal apartments, is intent on being a museum, the security checkpoints and bag check facilities a reminder that this twisting labyrinth is meant to be viewed, gaped at, and passed through. This is not meant to be a place of worship, and it is not intended to house the Sacraments (other than the Sistine Chapel which has been woven into the museum). When we enter the Stanza della Segnatura, the walls burst with color. We draw near to the famous “School of Athens” wall, identify our friends Plato and Aristotle pointing in their opposite directions. I spy Pythagoras in a corner solving triangular problems. We point sweaty fingers at Socrates and guess at some of the other painted figures.

We turn our attention next to the paintings on the opposite wall. Through my mumbled and weak French translation and Katharine’s attempts at German sentences, we learn that this piece is called the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.” We find the Christian church doctors, Christ triumphant above an altar with a monstrance holding the Eucharistic bread. We see the symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove descending on the altar, and we see the depiction of God the Father above Jesus reigning in the golden light of the painted heavens. Raphael, the artist responsible for these glorious paintings, created a conversation between Athens and Jerusalem. I feel myself caught in the crossfire. I turn to one side and see academic scholarship, lovers of wisdom who create the very field of philo-sophia (the love of wisdom). I turn to the other side and I see the life of the faithful, participation in the liturgy, Church doctors and fathers gathered in worship and adoration. The two worlds that have seemed so disparate, so antagonizing to each other, are in the same room and talk with each other.

And when we turn our eyes skyward, we are not met with beautiful blue or a sky scattered with clouds, or another scene from church or the ancient world. Instead, we are met with the virtues again: Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence depicted as women and the three theological virtues depicted as cherubs. Justice with her sword is depicted above the panel. The search for the virtues and their allegorical depictions could be academic, I think to myself as we point out the symbols of sword, mirror and reins. We could think of these as interesting curios of an artistic world gone by. We could study them as “merely those things that people of that time thought about.” We could treat the “School of Athens” and the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” as nothing but more exhibits in a museum, and the virtues a scholarly afterthought.

But that is not what the virtues here demand. Here they are the architectural and intellectual bridge between the “School of Athens” and the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.” Here the virtues soar above these two worlds, the classical virtues supplied by Athens artistically interwoven with the theological virtues of the Church. As the virtues recline between these worlds, I envision for the first time how the virtues are a possible, perhaps even essential, bridge between the Academy and the Church. Pieper writes, “All duty is based upon being. Reality is the basis of ethics… Whoever wants to know and do the god must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being… He must look away from his own deed and look upon reality” (11). The ancient thinkers pursue knowledge, wisdom about the true reality. The Christian faith seeks understanding, understanding of the true created reality. Plato sought the Forms from which our present realities are derived. The Christian seeks God’s creational vision for His world. Both worlds are bridged by contemplation of the virtues, by the pursuit of the virtuous life.

As I gaze at Raphael’s painted conversation, mediated by the women and cherubs on the ceiling, my eyes begin to sparkle with realization. This is where we begin to put scholarly reflection with churchly life. These pursuits of truth, all pursuits of knowing the good, require a conversation about the nature of the good, and the nature of the good man. In this way, the virtues span a gap between Athens and Jerusalem. This cannot be only academic study of the virtues, for on the contrary; the virtues themselves are required to pursue our understanding. We need prudence to teach us how to listen in silence to the reality of the world (Pieper 13). We need hope, “hope in life’s abundance of reality, in eternal life, in a new heaven and a new earth” (Pieper 54). At the same time, we must engage in serious scholarly reflection on the philosophical roots of these virtues, their historical trajectories, so that we might understand their origins. Only through the pursuit of and acquiring of these virtues, in both the Academy and the Church, can we hope to pursue both true learning and true worship.

The virtues haunted their way through the entire trip, from the Papal palaces of Rome to the Florence Baptistery, to the Santa Croce pulpit. In each of the places we visited, the virtues were discovered in a theologically and philosophically meaningful place. They are found at the entrance of the Christian into new life in Christ. They are found supporting the place from which the Word of God, and hence, our faith, is proclaimed. And they are forming a bridge and fusing a connection between Raphael’s Athens and Heavenly realms. In each place, seeking to understand what the virtues might mean in the modern world, seeking to bring them to life out of the museums or ivory towers where they have been waylaid, I learned that, far from museum relics of the bygone medieval world, the virtues are integral parts of life. They are not only the subject for academic study but also the subject for serious spiritual discipline.

Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love leap forward when I open my mouth to talk about Italy. As I wonder about the churches in Florence that have become museums, the papal palaces in Rome, the crowds of tourists snapping cameras at the doors of the Baptistery, I wonder at how we would go about restoring and reeducating the world about what these churches were. I wonder what it would require of us to reintroduce the virtues, not as merely scholarly material, but as the very stuff and matter that binds us to faith, that binds us to the life of the Church. Having returned from Italy with these artistic and allegorical visions in my mind, I am better equipped to begin this conversation, knowing that I must be to the conversation about virtue like Raphael’s ceiling: remembering that the virtues are a bridge between the two worlds, and form a real, living part of the Christian faith.

Pieper, Josef. A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (trans. Paul C. Duggin). San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988.

—. Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986.

—. The Four Cardinal Virtues. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.