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Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:

Frequently Asked Questions: Seven Deadly Sins


1. What are the Seven Deadly Sins?

Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) described Seven Deadly Sins in his Moralia in Job.

1. Superbia Pride
2. Invidia Envy
3. Ira Anger
4. Avaritia Avarice
5. Tristia Sadness
6. Gula Gluttony
7. Luxuria Lust

(Moralia in Job, XXXI cap. xlv).

The sin ‘Tristia’ was later replaced by ‘Accidia’, or Sloth (Wenzel (1967), 38). This sin was taken from earlier catalogues of vice, in particular, the eight evil thoughts listed by Evaagrius (346-99), and the eight principal vices proposed by the mid fourth-century writer Cassian (Wenzel (1967), 14-21). Some of the iconography of the Sins was derived from the descriptions of the Battles between the Virtues and Vices in the Psychomachia by the fourth-century poet Prudentius.

2. Why were they called ‘Deadly’?

The church made a division between sins which were venial and could be forgiven without the need for the sacrament of Confession and those which were capital and merited damnation. Capital or Deadly Sins were so called because they could have a fatal effect on an individual’s spiritual health. British wall paintings stressed the connection between committing the Deadly Sins and ending up in Hell.

A fourteenth-century text, known as Dan Jon Gaytrygge’s Sermon, associated with the Constitutions issued by Archbishop Thoresby for the Diocese of York in 1357, stated:

‘For als the venym of the neddire (adder) slaas manes body, swa the venym of syn slaas manes saule’.

(Perry (1867), 12)

3. Why did people need to know about these sins?

You might imagine that the church would want to prevent people even thinking about such spiritually dangerous actions. But there were two good reasons why churchmen felt it was important to educate people:

  1. so that they would not commit these sins without realising how serious they were,
  2. so that they would be able to confess any such sins and gain absolution.

This desire to educate the laity about the Seven Deadly Sins can be particularly associated with the Fourth Lateran Council (1214). This Council established the practice of annual confession for all, declaring that:

All the Faithful of both sexes shall, after they have reached the age of discretion, faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest and perform to the best of their ability the penance imposed, receiving reverently at least at Easter the sacrament of the Eucharist, unless perchance at the advice of their priest they may for a good reason abstain for a time from its reception; otherwise they shall be cut off from the Church during life and deprived of Christian burial in death. Wherefore, let this salutary decree be published frequently in the churches, that no one may find in the plea of ignorance a shadow of excuse.

Let the priest be discreet and cautious that he may pour wine and oil into the wounds of one injured after the manner of a skilful physician, carefully inquiring into the circumstances of the sinner and sin, from the nature of which he may understand what kind of advice to give and what remedy to apply, making use of different experiments to heal the sick one.

(Schroeder (1937), 259-60)

For this programme to be carried out, priests had to be educated to counsel the penitents and the laity had to be able to recognise and recall their sins. To address this need, English bishops issued Constitutions setting out syllabuses of material which they required their clergy to learn and to teach to their congregations (Gibbs and Lang (1934), 105-30). Several of these survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Perhaps the most famous were the Lambeth Constitutions of 1281, often known by their opening phrase, Ignorencia Sacerdotum, and promulgated in the Archdiocese of Canterbury (Powicke and Cheney (1964), II, 900-5).

The Seven Deadly Sins featured prominently in such syllabuses or catechisms. For example the 1229 Synodal Statues of Bishop William de Blois for the Diocese of Worcester stated that after confession the priest should instruct the penitent about the Seven Sins, in order that he may more easily call to mind the ways in which he has sinned (Powicke and Cheney (1964), 172).

4. When did the sins start to appear in wall painting?

The earliest surviving British wall paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins date from the first half of the fourteenth century. For example, the paintings at Cranborne in Dorset and Wotton Wawen in Warwickshire appear to date from the 1340s (Tristram (1955), 160, 268). However, the thirteenth-century writer, Durandus of Mende (d.1296), commended the practice of painting the Tree of Vice on the walls of a church, suggesting it was already familiar in some parts of Europe (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (1859), 27). The Seven Deadly Sins are included in a sculptural programme of the battle of the Vices and Virtues on the chapter house portal at Salisbury Cathedral (c1260-70) (Green (1968), 153–4).

Although there is a gap of over a century between the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the first British wall paintings in parish churches, this delay may be related to the chronology found in the dissemination of didactic literature. Only in the fourteenth century do vernacular versions of the syllabuses appear in a form suitable for teaching the congregation directly. For example, the Oculus Sacerdotis compiled in the 1320s by the Berkshire parish priest, William of Pagula, was the first compendium for parish priests, which presented the Lambeth Constitutions of 1281 in a form they could use in their parish (Boyle (1955), 94).

5. Where did the wall painters get their ideas?

Although none of the paintings described in this data-base are identical, it is clear that several of them follow the same basic form or ‘schema’, for example, showing the Sins as branches of an infernal tree or showing the Works of Mercy between the spokes of a wheel. These schema were developed in manuscript illumination from the eleventh century onwards. Many of these didactic diagrams were intended for monastic education and disseminated in such ‘spiritual encyclopaedia’ as the Speculum Virginium. Their combination of single words with visual images made them suitable for those who knew little Latin. Their organisation of information into discrete portions and the inclusion of startling images, such as caricatures and grotesque devils, made them memorable (Carruthers (1990), 60, 85, 257: Clanchy (1993), 174, 291). The schema themselves often suggested the relationships between the elements they presented and enabled the expression of opposites (Camille (1985), 137). For example, the Tree of Sins grows from the root of Pride and each of the Seven Deadly Sins then gives rise to further misdeeds (see Schema and the Notes to the Database).

Although many of these schema were first developed in a monastic context, they were disseminated to the secular clergy, then to literate lay people. For example, a beautiful rendering of the visual encyclopaedia Speculum Theologiae collected by John of Metz is found in the Psalter of Robert de Lisle (d. 1343) (Sandler (1983)).

We should not imagine a medieval wall painter on his scaffolding holding a copy of a luxurious illustrated book. Instead, he probably used a pattern or model. It is not improbable that some of these models were similar to or derived from those used by manuscript painters. However, many of these complex and wordy diagrams needed to be modified to make them suitable for monumental display to an often illiterate audience. Such additional figures are included in some manuscripts of the later thirteenth century and may have been intended to prompt penitential feelings in the viewer (O’Reilly (1994), 387). In the context of parochial wall painting this ‘pruning’ of subsidiary branches and the prominent display of personifications and additional figures created the startling images in this database, with their combination of formal settings and graphic caricatures.

(click to enlarge)

The Wheel of the Ten Ages of Man from the De Lisle Psalter.

(Jones (1853), pl.V)

The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were not the only subjects related to the catechism to be displayed in monumental art. A large corpus of carved fonts depicting the Seven Sacraments survive from the fifteenth century (Nichols (1994)). Subjects such as the Seven Sacraments and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are also found in fifteenth-century glass (Marks (1993), 79-80).

6. Who commissioned them?

Unfortunately the surviving evidence is scanty. No wills or churchwardens’ accounts relating to the paintings in this database have yet been identified. None of the paintings include the figures of donors, although the murals at Trotton are part of a larger scheme in which the kneeling figures of Sir Thomas Camoys (d.1421) and his son Richard and wife Joan are shown.

Most of the other paintings at Trotton are heraldic and chivalric images, celebrating the lineage, achievements and connections of the Camoys family. Even in an instance like this, we do not know who actually chose the morality subjects. Perhaps the Camoys family felt the need to contrast the proud chivalric images with paintings condemning sin and encouraging virtue, or perhaps the local parish priest insisted on a more balanced scheme. At Arundel the paintings follow the rebuilding of the church by Thomas Fitzalan (5th Earl of Arundel), and at Milton Abbas they are associated with the remodelling carried out by Abbot Middleton (1481-1525). However, we do not know to what extent these individuals were personally involved in selecting subjects for display.

Late medieval wills suggest that lay patrons felt a degree of freedom in selecting images for their churches, but the informal negotiation which may have gone on between priests, churchwardens and individuals has left no record. In some instances it is clear that congregations regarded their priest as a source of advice about the selection of images (Duffy (1989), 160). In other instances, such as the early fifteenth-century eucharistic wall paintings at Friskney in Lincolnshire, the scheme may have been devised by the scholarly, clerical donor to educate the congregation (Rubin (1991), 131).

(Click to Enlarge)

Sir Thomas Camoys (d.1421) and his son and daughter-in-law. Nave, south wall, Trotton, Sussex.


7. Why 7?

After three, seven is the number of greatest religious significance in ancient Judaism (Kirschbaum (1972), IV, 154). God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, hallowing it. The number seven consequently had connotations of completeness or perfection. It was also significant in the Ancient World, associated with the seven planets, the seven ages of man and the Seven Wonders of the World. Given its prominence in Jewish and Antique thought, it is not surprising that it retained its significance in the early Church (Kirschbaum (1972), IV, 154-5). The Seven Deadly Sins became one of a number of important groups of seven current in the medieval church, for example, the Seven canonical hours, the Seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of the Virgin and, of course, the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy.

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Last updated: 20/12/2001
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