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Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:

The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in English Medieval Wall Painting:
Imperfect Parallels

Miriam Gill (BA Oxon)

The Seven Deadly Sins is the most popular morality subject based on the Catechism in English medieval wall paintings, with over fifty examples recorded. Although there are slightly fewer instances of the Seven Corporal Works, the corpus of over forty paintings is still substantial. More significantly there are twenty churches where the two subjects are found together in the same scheme. The rationale for this pair of 'opposites' and the problems and possibilities raised by their visual presentation are explored here.

The earliest surviving English wall paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy date from the early fourteenth century, although these subjects can be found in other media, such as sculpture and manuscript illumination, before this date. The factors which led to their depiction in monumental painting can be traced back to the programme of lay education promoted in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). This educational initiative was linked to the introduction of regular confession for all lay people and intended to enable them to recognise their moral and theological failings and either avoid them or be able to recall and confess them. In the course of the thirteenth century, several English bishops issued 'Constitutions' setting out the programme of didactic material which the clergy were to preach and teach to their congregations. The list of the Seven Deadly Sins was included in all such syllabuses. Although the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy was less frequently included, it was one of the items specified by the famous Lambeth Constitutions of 1281, known by its opening phrase: Ignorencia Sacerdotum. This was the standard syllabus throughout the whole Province of Canterbury and served as the model of the catechism proposed for the Province of York by Archbishop Thoresby in 1357.

The didactic programmes of the thirteenth century inspired the composition of works intended to help the clergy to carry out their new educational duties. Those written in the first half of the thirteenth century were generally Latin texts intended to supplement the education of the clergy, but after 1260 a number of didactic manuals aimed at the laity were produced in the vernacular. It is also in the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries that the elaborate didactic diagrams developed in monastic circles to teach subjects such as the Seven Deadly Sins started to appear in manuscripts produced for the laity. However, it was not till the production of William of Pagula’s Oculus Sacerdotis in the 1320s that parish priests had access to a manual which expounded the didactic content of the Lambeth Constitutions in the vernacular, so that parish priests could use this syllabus directly with their congregations.

Of all the didactic lists and devotional items included in the Constitutions, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were easily the most popular in wall painting. By contrast the third most popular item, the Seven Sacraments, is recorded in only three churches, although they are very frequently found in sculpture, especially on fifteenth-century fonts.

The frequency with which the Sins and the Works occur together suggests that they were regarded as an opposing pair. However, this contrast was not straight-forward and while the subjects were frequently shown in adjacent paintings, it was more difficult to express the idea that each individual Sin and Work could be presented as direct opposites, in the way in which the Vices and Virtues described in the 'Psychomachia' of Prudentius were.

The most obvious explanation for the imperfect parallel between the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy is the different origins of the two lists. Six Corporal Works of Mercy are described by Christ in the parable of the sheep and the goats, but an additional act, burying the dead, seems to have been added to the list by the twelfth century in order to bring the total to the perfect number, seven. By contrast the list of the Seven Deadly Sins developed from a tradition of listing vices which went back to Evaagrius. The list of Seven Sins used in the medieval church was based on that developed by Pope Gregory the Great (d.609), but with the sin of 'accedia' from an earlier list by Cassian exchanged for the sin of 'tristia' originally included by Gregory. More significantly, the lists differed in the nature of their conten: while the Seven Deadly Sins were abstract qualities inspiring evil actions - pride, anger and gluttony - the Corporal Works of Mercy, were specific deeds such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

In English wall painting the Seven Deadly Sins are depicted in eight distinct ways, while the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are presented in six different schema. The sins are depicted in single scenes, in the schema of a wheel or a tree, emerging from a naked man, emerging from a woman speared by death, surrounding a regal male figure, riding on allegorical animals and in an allegorical form based on 'Frau Welt'. The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are displayed as individual scenes, in a tree, around a wheel, round a male figure or a female figure and around a figure of Christ.

These various schema had developed in European manuscript painting from the eleventh century onwards. Many of these traditions have identifiable regional origins for example the tree diagram, the most popular way of depicting the Seven Deadly Sins in English wall painting, developed in Germany, while the wheel diagram seems to originate from France. Even when the same form, for example the wheel, was used to present the Works and the Sins, these representations developed from separate traditions.

Perhaps as a result of this variety of traditions, many English schemes of wall painting use different diagrammatic forms to depict the Sins and the Works, making any individual comparison between their contents very difficult. For example in the late fourteenth century paintings at Catfield in Norfolk the Sins are shown as a tree, while the Works are depicted as individual scenes.

However, there are instances where it does appear that a concerted effort was made to depict the individual Sins and Works as opposing pairs. This is most evident in the scheme of c.1399-1405 on the west wall of the church at Trotton in West Sussex. Referred to as an 'abbreviated Doom' this painting depicts Christ sitting in Judgement above a naked figure of an evil man, with the Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from the appropriate parts of his body and a decently-dressed figure of a good man, surrounded by scenes of figures performing the Works of Mercy. It has been noted that several of the scenes are positioned to create dramatic contrasts, for example the scene of clothing the naked is depicted above the head of the righteous man, in order to contrast with the figure of Pride, now damaged but probably arrayed in fine clothing, which proceeds from the head of his sinful counterpart. The scene of giving drink to the thirsty and the vomiting figure of gluttony associated with the mouth of the evil man are likewise contrasted. Thus the performance of the Works is presented as signifying a resistance to, indeed a negation, of the Sins.

This focus on the Deadly Sins and Works of Mercy as the opposite poles of lay behaviour contrasts with the pattern favoured in wall paintings in parish churches in fifteenth-century France, where the Seven Deadly Sins are frequently depicted in contrast to the Seven Virtues. While the list of Virtues had a separate origin from the Seven Deadly Sins, the fact that it also enumerated abstract qualities made it slightly easier for the two subjects to be depicted in direct opposition. In a popular schema found in several churches single figures of the Virtues are shown directly above figures of the opposing vices mounted on animals. By contrast only a single representation of the Seven Virtues has been identified in English wall painting, at Cranborne in Dorset where it is depicted in the form of a tree alongside a Tree of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The frequent pairing of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy combined with the general absence of didactic contrast between the individual elements of the two subjects raises two final questions. In what ways were these two lists presented and regarded as opposites? If they were rarely presented in opposition to each other, were they related to other material in that way?

It seems that in English wall painting the contrast between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy lies in the contrasting roles the medieval church accorded to these lists in the scheme of salvation. Quite simply, the Seven Deadly Sins lead to Hell, while performance of the Seven Works of Mercy was the criterion by which Christ would judge the world, rewarding those who performed them with entry to Heaven. Although schema rarely showed the individual Sins and Works as opposites, many of the schemae used to depict them stressed the connections between the Sins and Hell and the Works and salvation. For example, devils were shown encouraging sinners, while angels supported those who performed good deeds; sinners were shown in the mouth of Hell, while those who did good were blessed by Christ. Indeed, two late fifteenth-century Doom paintings, in the Guild Chapel at Stratford-upon-Avon and at Waltham Abbey show the Seven Deadly Sins in Hell, while preachers encouraged their congregations to learn and perform the Works of Mercy because they would be 'catechised' on them at the Last Judgement.

To turn to the second question, there was a variety of other schemes for teaching the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, the sins were presented in relation to the image of the crucified Christ, and devotional material, especially the seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer. The former response is suggested as the main pattern of reading the image of the crucified Christ in the early fifteenth-century treatise Dives and Pauper. The later approach was used in a Paternoster play performed in several towns, including Beverley and York. Although no text of this play survives, it appears that each of the petitions was presented by a comic figure of the vice.


Little is known about the patronage of schemes of didactic painting in late medieval England, but it is clear from those which remain that the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were considered to constitute an opposing pair of vices and graces, not because the individual elements of these two lists were easily constructed as opposites (although such an approach was sometimes attempted), but because of their causal relationship to the most fundamental polarity of medieval religion, damnation and salvation.


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