Friday, 8 April 2016

Seeing cardinal and theological
virtues in some church windows

The Four Cardinal Virtues … a window seen in the Church of Sant Jaume in Barcelona last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Last week [28 March 2016], as I was leaving the Church of Sant Jaume in Barcelona, on the last day of a weekend visit to the city, I noticed a pair of windows at the back of the Church, bringing together the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.

The church is near the Rambla on Calle Ferran, one of the busiest shopping and commercial streets in Barcelona. Calle Ferran is in what is commonly referred to as the Call Menor, an extension of the original Jewish Quarter (El Call), and this church stands on the site of what was the old synagogue of Barcelona for many centuries.

The cardinal virtues comprise a set of four virtues that is recognised in Classical writings and in Christian tradition they are usually paired with the theological virtues.

The cardinal virtues are the four principal moral virtues. The word cardinal comes from the Latin word cardo, which means ‘hinge,’ because all other virtues hinge on these four: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The three theological virtues are: faith, hope and love. Together, the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues comprise what are known as the seven virtues.

Plato is the first philosopher to discuss the cardinal virtues when he discusses them in the Republic (Book IV, 426-435). Plato narrates a discussion of the character of a good city: “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate and just” (427e; see also 435b).

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle writes: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom” (Rhetoric 1366b1).

The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106-43 BC), like Plato, limits the list to four virtues: “Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind (animi) in harmony with reason and the order of nature. It has four parts: wisdom (prudentiam), justice, courage, temperance” (De Inventione, II, LIII). Cicero also discusses them in De Officiis.

Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas adapted them. Saint Ambrose (330s-397 AD) was the first to use the term ‘cardinal virtues,’ when he wrote: ‘And we know that there are four cardinal virtues temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude’ (Commentary on Luke, V, 62).

Unlike the theological virtues, which are the gifts of God through grace, the four cardinal virtues can be practiced by anyone; thus, they represent the foundation of natural morality.

1, Prudence (φρόνησις, phronēsis; Latin, prudential):

Saint Thomas Aquinas ranks prudence as the first cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the intellect.

Before him, Aristotle defines prudence as recta ratio agibilium, or ‘right reason applied to practice.’ It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. When we mistake the evil for the good, we are not exercising prudence; in fact, we are showing our lack of it.

Because it is so easy to fall into error, prudence requires seeking the counsel of others, particularly those who are sound judges of morality. Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with ours is a sign of imprudence.

Prudence is also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time.

Prudence was assigned to the rulers and to reason. Saint Augustine says prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.

2, Justice (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosynē; Latin, iustitia):

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, justice is the second cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the will.

Justice is also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue.

Justice stands outside the class system and divisions of man, and rules the proper relationship among the three of them.

Saint Augustine says justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly.

3, Fortitude (ἀνδρεία, andreia; Latin, fortitude):

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, fortitude is the third cardinal virtue. This virtue is commonly called courage, and is also known as fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation

Fortitude allows us to overcome fear and to remain steady in our will in the face of obstacles, but it is always reasoned and reasonable. Someone exercising fortitude does not seek danger for danger’s sake. Prudence and justice are the virtues through which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the strength to do it.

Fortitude was assigned to the warrior class and to the spirited element in humanity. It is the only one of the cardinal virtues that is also a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Augustine says fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object.

4, Temperance (σωφροσύνη, sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia):

Temperance is the fourth and final cardinal virtue, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Temperance is also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition.

Temperance is the restraint of desires or passions. This is the virtue that tries to keep us from excess, and, as such, requires the balancing of legitimate goods against our inordinate desire for them.

Temperance was common to all classes, but primarily associated with the producing classes, the farmers and craftsmen, and with the animal appetites, to whom no special virtue was assigned.

Saint Augustine says temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved.

The Cardinal Virtues are often depicted as female allegorical figures and became a popular subject for sculptures and stained glass windows in churches and are depicted with symbolic items. Temperance has a wheel, bridle and reins, vegetables and fish, a cup, water and wine in two jugs. Justice is commonly depicted with a sword, balance and scales, and a crown. Fortitude characteristically is shown with armour and a club, and is seen with a lion, a palm, a tower, a yoke and a broken column. Prudence is seen with a book, scroll and mirror.

The Three Theological Virtues … a window seen in the Church of Sant Jaume in Barcelona last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The three Theological Virtues are: Faith, Hope and Love (see I Corinthians 13).

1, Faith: belief in God, and in the truth of his revelation as well as obedience to him.

2, Hope: expectation of and desire of receiving; refraining from despair and capability of not giving up. The belief that God will be eternally present in every person’s life and never giving up on his love.

TS Eliot writes in East Coker:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.


3, Love: a supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbours, more than ourselves.

TS Eliot writes in Burnt Norton:

Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.


There have been various efforts to combine the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. Saint Augustine sees faith as coming under justice.

In traditional theology, it is held that these virtues differ from the cardinal virtues in that they cannot be obtained by human effort. A person can only receive them through Divine grace.

The three Theological Virtues are often depicted in art as young women, with symbols that are identify them. Faith is seen with a cross pointing upward, staff and chalice, lamp, candle, hands together with fingers extended together. Hope has an anchor, harp, flaming brand or palm, with her hands closed and her fingers interlocked with each other. Love has a flaming heart, is seen with children, is gathering fruit, and has her hands crossed over her heart.

Faith, Hope and Love … a window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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