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Seven Liberal Arts

medieval carry accompanied music

The areas of secular education considered “liberal” have their foundation in classical antiquity and were codified in the medieval period into a distinct set of seven, with two subdivisions. The upper division, the quadrivium , consists of Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music; while the lower division, or trivium , is made up of Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), and Rhetoric.

Numerous early medieval authors (including Saint *Augustine, *Boethius, Cassiodorus, Hrabanus *Maurus, *Isidore of Seville, and other encyclopedists) wrote treatises on the liberal arts. Many later medieval authors also produced treatises and commentaries on some or all of the liberal arts.

The tradition of artistic representation of the Seven Liberal Arts may be traced to the fifth-century work of Martianus *Capella; his allegorial treatise, De nuptiis philologiae et mercurii libri novem describes the Seven Liberal Arts as personified female figures with specific attributes and companions. In illustrations of Capella’s text and in Romanesque and Gothic architectural sculpture and stained glass, GRAMMAR is often identified by the whip she carries (to encourage or admonish her students), and she may be accompanied by *Priscian or Donatus; LOGIC may carry a snake (symbolizing wily argument) and be accompanied by *Aristotle; RHETORIC wears armor and may also carry a book or scroll, in company with *Cicero; GEOMETRY holds compasses and/or a globe or other measuring instruments and may be accompanied by *Euclid; multiplying rays may spring from the head of ARITHMETIC who appears in companionship with *Pythagoras, she may also carry a tablet and ruler; ASTRONOMY , in the company of *Ptolemy, is winged and has a crown of stars and may carry a globe and instruments of measurement; and MUSIC is normally represented playing a musical instrument (the type varies), accompanied either by *Pythagoras or the biblical descendant of *Cain, Tubal-Cain, considered in medieval tradition to be the inventor of music.

The descriptions of Capella were generally followed rigorously in medieval art with some variations and additions from other sources and traditions. Frequently, the Seven Liberal Arts are paired with the seven major *virtues and may be headed by the figure of *Philosophy, the “mother” of the Liberal Arts. In the thirteenth century, the traditional group of seven was expanded to include, for example, personified figures of Architecture, Astrology, Alchemy, and Painting.


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