The Liberal Arts in the Spanish Chapel

Pythagoras, Euclid and Ptolemy
The Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella (Florence)

This wonderful picture shows Pythagoras (left), Euclid (middle) and Ptolemy (right) sitting in front of the Arithmetic, the Geometry and the Astronomy respectively. We can see the Arithmetic holding a tablet, the Geometry holding a compass and the Astronomy holding an armillar sphere and the three men are holding their books. Of course, Euclid has his Elements and Ptolemy may be writing the Almagest. This section is part of the painting which we find in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. According to Wikipedia, the Spanish Chapel is the former chapter house of the monastery. It is situated at the north side of the Chiostro Verde and it was commissioned by Buonamico (Mico) Guidalotti as his funerary chapel. Construction started c. 1343 and was finished in 1355. The Guidalotti chapel was later called “Spanish Chapel”, because Cosimo I assigned it to Eleonora of Toledo and her Spanish retinue. The Spanish Chapel was decorated from 1365 to 1367 by Andrea di Bonaiuto and the large fresco on the right wall depicts the Allegory of the Active and Triumphant Church and of the Dominican order. It is especially interesting for us the fresco called The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas:

The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas

We can see St. Thomas Aquinas holding the Book of Wisdom with the words:

And so I prayed, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. I esteemed her more than scepters and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing.

Book of Wisdom 7:7, 8

There are seven figures over him which are the Seven Virtues: the three figures on the top from left to right are the Faith (holding a cross), the Charity (with her arms open and the Hope (holding an olive branch); the four figures on the bottom from left to right are: the Temperance (holding a upright branch of peace), the Prudence (holding a book to educate people in the correct way), the Justice (holding a scepter and the crown of the power) and the Fortitude (wearing an armor and holding a sword and a tower).

Next to St. Thomas sitting in the same row as him there are ten Biblical figures (from left to right): Job, David, Saint Paul, Matthew, John, Luke, Moses (holding the two sheets of the Law), Isaiah and Solomon. Under St. Thomas there are three heretic figures: Nestor, Arius and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).


Finally, the bottom row is full of allegorical figures. On the image’s left (from left to right): the Civil Law(and the Emperor Justinian whose code was the law of the Roman Empire, sitting at her feet), the Canonical Law (and Pope Clement V), the Philosophy (and Aristotle), the Holy Scripture (and Jerome), the Theology (and John of Damascus), the Contemplation (and Dionysius the Areopagite) and the Preaching (and St. Agustine). On the right, the Arithmetic (and Pythagoras), the Geometry (and Euclid), the Astronomy (and Ptolemy) and the Music (and Tubal Cain) represent the Quadrivium. Finally, the Dialectics (and Pietro Ispana), the Rhetoric (and Cicero) and Grammar (and Priscian) represent the Trivium.

Location: Santa Maria Novella at Florence (map)


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