Artists and the Liberal Arts

“I want the painter, as far as he is able, to be learned in all the liberal arts, but I wish him above all to have a good knowledge of geometry….Our rudiments, from which the complete and perfect art of painting may be drawn, can easily be understood by a geometer, whereas I think that neither the rudiments nor any principles of painting can be understood by those who are ignorant of geometry. Therefore, I believe that painters should study the art of geometry.” Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and on Sculpture in The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook.  Ed. Kenneth Bartlett. 2nd Ed. (Toronto, 2011),  p. 171.  [Emphasis added]

It should not surprise us that Alberti thought artists should study geometry.  Alberti was an architect and an artist.  The study of geometry laid the foundation for the transformation of the artistic depiction of the world.  However, notice that Alberti exhorted artists to study all the liberal arts.  Therefore, he continued:

“Next, it will be of advantage if they take pleasure in poets and orators, for these have many ornaments in common with the painter.   Literary men, who are full of information about many subjects, will be of great assistance in preparing the composition of a ‘historia,’ and the great virtue of this consists primarily in its invention.  Indeed, invention is such that even by itself and without pictorial representation it can give pleasure.” Ibid.

Here Alberti compares the composition of a historical painting (historia) to the practice of literary and rhetorical invention.  He understands the painting similarly to literary narrative presented by an orator.  Invention is the process by which an orator asks questions to find commonplaces (loci) for his speech.  For Alberti, a great work of art tells a compelling story to its observers.

Simply consider Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as an example. The great artist tells the story of God’s creation and restoration of the world and humanity.  He finds his material in the commonplaces of the Bible.

Augustine on the Use of History

“Whatever the subject called history reveals about the sequence of past events is of the greatest assistance in interpreting the holy books, even if learnt outside the church as part of primary education.” Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching II. XXVll., trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), p. 55.

In his famous work on Christian teaching Augustine examines the use various subjects to support a proper understanding of the Bible.  History serves a significant role in that it examines God’s providential work in time.  This subject explains what has happened already and provides examples and guides for the teachers and students of holy Scripture.  In order to understand Augustine’s use of pagan and sacred history, then simply read his monumental work, The City of God.

“Historical narrative also describes human institutions of the past, but it should not for that reason be counted among human institutions.  For what has already gone into the past and cannot be undone must be considered part of the history of time, whose creator and controller is God.  There is a difference between describing what has been done and describing what must be done.  History relates past events in a faithful and useful way, whereas the books of haruspices and similar literature set out to teach things to be performed or observed, and offer impertinent advice, not reliable information.” Ibid., p. 56.

Haruspices were diviners in ancient Rome who read the entrails of animals to predict future events.  Augustine contrasts their unreliable predictions and teachings with the reliable information provided by divine providence through the examination of historical events.  According to Augustine, God controls history, not diviners, and the historical narrative reflects his handiwork.

The Remedy of Human Infirmity

“Although pleasurable in many ways, the pursuit of letters is especially fruitful because it excludes all annoyances stemming from differences of times and place, it draws friends into each other’s presence, and it abolishes the situation in which things worth knowing are not experienced.  Arts would have perished, laws would have disappeared, faith and all religious duties whatsoever would have shattered, and even the correct use of eloquence would have declined, save that divine compassion granted to mortals the use of letters as a remedy for human infirmity.  The examples of our ancestors, which are incitements and inducements to virtue, never would have encouraged and been heeded by everyone, unless, through devotion, care and diligence, writers triumphed over idleness and transmitted these things to posterity.” John of Salisbury, Prologue to Policraticus, ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman. Cambridge, 1990, p. 3.

In the opening paragraph of his work on political philosophy and history John of Salisbury lauds the study of letters (i.e. reading and writing) as the foundation of the liberal arts, learning, and religion.  Through literature, as if through a divine gift, our ancestors pass on their collective wisdom to us from the past.  We rest the study of history upon this literary foundation and thereby we may remedy our human weaknesses.

Proper Digestion

“In the process of learning, the very thing that ought to be a great help, namely, a great desire to learn, often becomes for many people an impediment.  They want to take in everything at the same time, and are able to retain nothing as a result.  For as excess food does not nourish, but disgusts the stomach, weighing down and weakening the rest of the body, so a great abundance of things ingested all at once into the memory slips away heedlessly now and weakens the memory for the future.  So always let those who are eager to learn read widely, but let them select a few things each day that their memory can digest, and in this way let them store away three or four things or more, as each one’s ability or leisure will allow, as the special profit of that day. By reading other things, they will succeed in preserving by meditation what they have already learned and daily reading will make more familiar to them what they have yet to master.” Piero Paolo Vergerio, “Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, pp. 321-322.

Vergerio, the early fifteenth-century teacher, explains how good students must not overwhelm their minds with too much reading.  Commit small bits of ideas to memory on a daily basis.  When a student attempts to learn many things too quickly it gives the mind a “stomach ache.”  Vergerio follows the classical and medieval tradition of comparing reading to eating.  Slowly chewing one’s food makes for better digestion.  Similarly, slowly and steadily reading increases one’s abilities to remember and ultimately to truly learn.

John of Salisbury on the Liberal Arts

“While there are many sorts of arts, the first to proffer their services to the natural abilities of those who philosophize are the liberal arts.  All of the latter are included in the courses of the Trivium and Quadrivium.  The liberal arts are said to have become so efficacious among our ancestors, who studied them diligently, that they enabled them to comprehend everything they read, elevated their understanding to all things, and empowered them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution. Those to whom the system of the Trivium has disclosed the significance of all words, or the rules of the Quadrivium have unveiled the secrets of all nature, do not need the help of a teacher in order to understand the meaning of books and to find the solutions of questions.” John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, Book 1, Chap. 12, trans. Daniel D. McGarry (Philadelphia 2009), p. 36.

The trivium consists of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  The quadrivium includes arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.  These arts formed the basis of literary comprehension, understanding, and true problem solving.  Once someone has mastered these arts he or she does not need a teacher.

The Word Became Flesh

“…we believe the Scriptures and confess with holy Christendom, which existed at all times and will endure till the end of the world, that this article of our holy Christian creed, together with all others, is firmly and solidly established by the testimony of the holy prophets and apostles, the spokesmen of the Holy Spirit: that Christ, our Lord and God, assumed true human nature, not the nature of an immaterial phantom, and that He became a natural man like any other man of flesh and blood.  He did not flutter about like a spirit, but He dwelt among men.  He had eyes, ears, mouth, nose, chest, stomach, hands, and feet, just as you and I do.  He took the breast.  His mother nursed Him as any other child is nursed.  He acted as any other human does.  He was born as a true man from the Virgin Mary; the one difference, however, was that He was not born in sin as we are, that ‘He committed no sin, and no guile was found on His lips.’ ” Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1—4, Luther’s Works vol. 22, p. 113.

Martin Luther preached and taught on the Gospel of St. John in the late 1520s. Here he explained the meaning of “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)  According to Dr. Luther, the incarnation of God the Word as a human being formed the core of the Christian faith.  Jesus Christ did not become a phantom, a ghost, or temporarily take on an earthly form.  Rather, he was made human in every way except for sin.

Martin Luther, Augustine and the Languages

“And, further, if I could bring it to pass among you, I should like to ask that you do not neglect the languages but, since it would not be difficult for you, that you have your preachers and some of your gifted boys learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew well.  I know for a fact that one who has to preach and expound the Scriptures and has no help from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but must do it entirely on the basis of his mother tongue, will make many a pretty mistake.  For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the divine Scriptures. This also was the feeling and opinion of St. Augustine; he held that there should be some people in the church who use Greek and Hebrew before they deal with the Word, because it was in these two languages that the Holy Spirit wrote the Old and New Testaments.” Martin Luther, The Adoration of the Sacrament, in Luther’s Works, vol. 36, p. 304. [Emphasis added]

Dr. Luther wrote this exhortation to the Bohemian Brethren in 1523.  This quote appears at the end of a treatise on the proper adoration of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  In the paragraph before this quote Luther acknowledges the difficulty of understanding the meanings of words from different languages (Czech, German, and Latin.)  Then he exhorts them to teach Latin, Hebrew, and Greek to young men so that they may have proper preachers in the future.

Luther also cited Augustine of Hippo to support this notion.  As indicated in the footnote of the English translation (Ibid.), Luther, most likely, had the following passage in mind:

An important antidote to the ignorance of literal signs is the knowledge of languages.  Users of the Latin language–and it is these that I have now undertaken to instruct–need two others, Hebrew and Greek, for an understanding of the divine scriptures, so that recourse may be had to the original versions if any uncertainty arises from the infinite variety of Latin translators.” Augustine, On Christian Teaching II. XI., trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), p. 38. [Emphasis added]

Cassiodorus on Returning to Books

“For learning taken from the ancients in the midst of praising the Lord is not considered tasteless boasting. Furthermore, you make a serious teacher angry if you question him often; but however often you want to return to these books, you will not be rebuked with severity.” Cassiodorus, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 230

Cassiodorus (c.490-c.580) was a noble Roman born around the time of the fall of western Roman Empire.  He sought to preserve both sacred Christian and ancient Roman literature.  This work, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, sets forth a curriculum of study for a monastery and its school.  Books serve as teachers who never cease instructing their readers. Cassiodorus continues:

“Therefore, beloved brothers, let us ascend without hesitation to Holy Scripture through the excellent commentaries of the Fathers, as if on the ladder of Jacob’s vision so that, lifted by their thoughts, we are worthy to arrive at full contemplation of the Lord.  For commentary on Scripture is, as it were, Jacob’s ladder, by which the angels ascend and descend [Gen. 28:12]; on which the Lord leans, stretching out his hand to those who are weary, and supports the tired steps of those ascending by granting them contemplation of Him.” Ibid.


Unknowingly Righteous

“For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and seek righteousness from God in accord with His mercy, for this very reason they are always also regarded as righteous by God.  Thus in their own sight and in truth they are unrighteous, but before God they are righteous because He reckons them so because of their confession of sin.  They are actually sinners, but they are righteous by the imputation of a merciful God.  They are unknowingly righteous and knowingly unrighteous; they are sinners in fact but righteous in hope.  And this is what he is saying here: ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’ (Ps. 32:1)” Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, in Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 258. [Emphasis added]

This astounding quote reveals Dr. Luther’s true Reformation discovery.  Nailing academic theses to a church door is tangential to Luther’s (re)discovery of the proper understanding of the doctrine of justification.  Here Luther was lecturing on Romans 4:7 (which quotes Ps. 32:1) in the winter of 1515/1516.  While he did not apply this teaching to all ecclesiastical practices yet, the core of Luther’s insight appeared the in these lectures on Romans.

Later in the same section Luther declared: “…the mistake lies in thinking that this evil can be cured through works, since experience bears witness that whatever good work we perform, this concupiscence toward evil remains, and no one is ever cleansed of it, not even the one-day-old infant.  But the mercy of God is that this does remain and yet is not imputed as sin to those who call upon Him and cry out for His deliverance. For such people easily avoid also the error of works, because they so zealously seek to be justified.  Thus in ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God’s imputation.” Ibid., pp. 259-60.

Luther then compared the sinner to a sick man who trusted a doctor’s promise of healing in the future.  Christ, like the Good Samaritan, has brought the half-dead sinner into the inn for healing.  He does not impute sins, that is, wicked desires, against the sick man.  Luther asked rhetorically if this sick sinner was perfectly righteous.  Dr. Luther answered with this well known statement: “No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until He completely cured him.” Ibid., p. 260.

After Luther published the Ninety-Five Theses in late 1517, the Indulgence Controversy made Luther famous (or infamous) throughout Western Europe.  By April 7, 1521 Martin Luther was on his way to the diet of Worms to face Emperor Charles V’s justice.  On that day Luther preached at Erfurt before a large congregation.  In that sermon he proclaimed: “Our Lord Christ says: I am your justification.  I have destroyed the sins you have upon you.  Therefore only believe in me; believe that I am he who has done this; then you will be justified.  For it is written, Justicia est fides, righteousness is identical with faith and comes through faith.” Martin Luther, “Sermon Preached at Erfurt on the Journey to Worms,” Luther’s Works, vol. 51, p. 63.

The Drunken Effects of Reading

“Reading sharpens perception, adds new dimensions of understanding, kindles an ardent desire to learn, affords fluency, warms the lukewarm enthusiasm of the mind, casts out sluggishness, tears away the web of lust, excites groans of the heart, coaxes forth tears, brings us closer to God.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, trans. Gillian R. Evans (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981), p. 137.

In his “Exhortation to Learning” (Chap. 36) Alan of Lille lauds reading (lectio) and assigns great powers to it.  Alan combines the monastic tradition of sacred reading and the twelfth-century scholastic understanding of learning.  Both focused on reading to move the soul or mind toward God and away from worldly matters.

Alan continues, “If you read, idleness flees, the devil finds you occupied.  Go into the wine cellar, in which love is ordained: that is, read Scripture, inquire into its meanings. In this cellar, a man becomes drunk in such a way that he comes away more sober still.” Ibid., p. 137.

Here Alan uses a metaphorical interpretation of Song of Solomon 2:4 (Vulgate).  He instructs the readers of holy Scripture to ‘become drunk’ with its manifold meanings through careful examination of the texts.  How does one accomplish this?

Alan explains, “When you read a great deal, set one thing in particular before you, chew over one very pithy thought, that the more firmly it takes root in your spirit, that more it may please that palate of your mind.  If you set out upon any reading, do not pass over it in a moment, but dwell upon it, not passing on to something else as though you found it distasteful.” Ibid., p. 137.

Reading for understanding involves a thoughtful process of cogitation and meditation upon the texts.  Readers should ruminate the text, that is, metaphorically and mentally ‘chew’ it over and over again.  The metaphor of eating the text demonstrated the power of reading and memorization.  The text transforms the reader.  One does not guzzle fine wine for the effect of inebriation, but rather savors it.  Scripture should be mentally ingested in a similar manner.  This manner of reading does inebriate the reader, but not in a worldly sense.  It enlightens the soul toward the true awareness of God and the self.