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Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:


A wide variety of schema are used to present the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in English wall painting. Miriam Gill has identified eight distinct ways in which the Seven Deadly Sins are depicted, while the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are presented in seven different schema. The Seven Deadly Sins are also shown in the context of paintings of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel at Stratford-upon-Avon and at Waltham Abbey and their punishment, possibly in Purgatory, is depicted below the Dance of Death on the the north wall of the Stratford Guild Chapel (presently covered by panelling).

Seven Deadly Sins
  1. Tree
  2. Wheel
  3. Scenes
  4. From naked man
  5. From woman (speared by death)
  6. Around man
  7. Frau Welt
  8. Mounted on animals
Seven Corporal Works
  1. Tree
  2. Wheel
  3. Scenes
  4. Around Christ
  5. Around woman
  6. Around man
  7. Around angel

The paintings of the Sins in this database include examples of all of these patterns except for the Seven Deadly Sins based on the diagram Frau Welt, which is found only in a lost painting in the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford-upon-Avon. Of the schema used to portray the Works of Mercy, four are represented in this database. Those not found in the sample examined here are the Tree of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy and the display of the Works around Christ or a woman.

Tree of the Seven Deadly Sins

The imagery of Seven Deadly Sins as the branches of a tree can be traced back to the writings of Cassian and Gregory the Great (Bloomfield (1952), 80). The earliest surviving diagrammatic presentations of the Tree of Sin date from the first half of the twelfth century (O'Reilly (1988), 365-66). This imagery seems to originate in the Rhineland and the earliest such depictions are associated with the early twelfth-century tract De fructibus carnis et spiritus which states:

‘It is good to represent the fruits of humility and Pride as a kind of visual image so that anyone studying to improve himself can clearly see what things will result from them. Therefore we show the novices and untutored men two little trees, differing in fruits and in size, each displaying the characteristics of virtues and vices, so that people may understand the products of each and choose which of the trees they would establish in themselves’. (Caiger-Smith (1963), 50) (translated from: Migne (1854), CLXXVI, 997).

The earliest such tree diagram preserved in a manuscript of 1133 from Pergau Monastery (Leipzig, University Library, MS 148 fols 113v) is laid out in the following way:

Top of Tree (Old Adam and Fruits of the Flesh)

Bottom of Tree (Whore of Babylon, left hand on hip and right outstretched)

(Clockwise from the top)

  1. Luxuria Lust
  2. Avaricia Avarice
  3. Ira Anger
  4. Vana Gloria Vain Glory (rather than Pride)
  5. Invidia Envy
  6. Tristicia Sadness (from the original list of Seven Deadly Sins)
  7. Ventris Ingluvies Gluttony

(O’Reilly (1988), pl. 21a)

The subsequent popularity of this image may be a consequence of its inclusion in the spiritual encyclopaedia for nuns Speculum Virginium (Katzenellenbogen (1939), 68n). It is also recorded that a Tree of Vices was among the diagrams provided by Peter of Poitiers, Chancellor of the University of Paris, for the instruction of poor clerics (Saxl (1942), 108). By the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century the tree was included in manuscripts for devout and literate lay people, perhaps most famously as one of the images from the Speculum Theologiae in the exquisite prefatory material for the Psalter of Robert de Lisle (d.1343) (London, British Library, Arundel MS 83) (Sandler (1986), 48-9). The popularity of this organic image is evident from the assumption of the Lambeth Constitutions of 1281 that the priest would describe the sins as the branches of a Tree (Spencer (1993), 203).

Both these manuscript diagrams and the preaching and poetry above present the Tree of Sins as having many sub-branches. The problems of such complexity are succinctly expressed in the didactic treatise written by the Beccles schoolteacher, John Drury (c1434):

J xuld telle the how many brawnchis euery dedly synne hath, but thu xuldist not conceyve it’, (Meech (1934), 76).

Wall paintings of the Tree of Sins eschew this complexity, concentrating instead on the main branches. Rather than multifarious labels, these were illustrated by figures or scenes. Such personifications had been found in manuscript depictions of the Sins from the twelfth century, for example busts on female figures representing the sins are included on the Tree of Sins in the copy of ‘De fructibus carnis’ in the Salzburg Studienbibliothek (Katzenellenbogen (1939), pl. 66) .

The Tree became the most common schema for depicting the Seven Deadly Sins in British wall painting. In the database, the Tree is used at Catfield, Hoxne, Ruislip, Dalham and Kentford and possibly also at Hunworth, Kingston, Quatt and Stanningfield.

In the illustration opposite, the following Sins are identifiable (clockwise from top): 1. Pride, 2. Gluttony, 3. Avarice, 4. ?Envy, 5. Sloth (here as at Catfield, labelled as Socordia), 6. Lust, 7. ?Anger.

The Tree of the Seven Deadly Sins. North wall of nave, Crostwight, Norfolk (c.1360-80)

(Turner (1849), opposite p.355).

Tree of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

In manuscript collections, such as the Speculum Virginium and the Speculum Theologiae, the Tree of Sins was commonly accompanied by a Tree of the Seven Virtues (for example, Sandler (1983), 50-1). However, the Virtues are rarely depicted in British wall painting. The only example of such a Tree is at Cranborne in Dorset (c1340). None of the sites covered in the database display the Works as a Tree, but a much repainted version of this subject from the second half of the fourteenth century survives at Edingthorpe in Norfolk.

The Tree of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. North wall of nave, Edingthorpe, Norfolk (Drawing by M.Gill)

Wheel of the Seven Deadly Sins

This schema developed from an eleventh-century device of depicting the Seven Petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in the form of a wheel. After 1200 the Seven Deadly Sins were added to this diagram (Rehm (1994), 55, 92.). Each of the Petitions was considered as offering protection against a particular sin. For example, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ protected against Pride, because it expressed the idea that we are all equally God’s children. The earliest examples of this schema are found in the area around Paris (Rehm (1994), 92-7). An early proponent of this approach was Durandus of Mende (d.1296), who included the following version of it in his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum.

Superbia Pater Noster (Our Father)
Luxuria Santificetur (Hallowed be thy name)
Gula Adveniat (Thy Kingdom come)
Avaritia Fiat (Thy will be done)
Accedia Panem (Give us this day our daily bread)
Invidia et dimitte (And forgive us our trespasses)
Ira et ne nos (As we forgive them which trespass)
Inanis gloria Sed libera (But deliver us from evil)

(Rehm (1994), 15)

The Seven Deadly Sins were also presented in the form of a Wheel as part of the ‘Wheel of Sevens’ or the ‘Seven Septenaries’. This diagram is found illustrating the twelfth-century treatise of Hugh of St Victor De quinque septens seu septenariis (Sandler (1983), 106, n.99). The wheel was included by the Parisian Franciscan, John of Metz, in his collection Speculum Theologiae (Sandler (1983), 52-3).

Wheels of the Paternoster illuminated in thirteenth-century Paris and London were adorned with miniatures representing the individual Sins (Rehm (1994), 62-7). Several English manuscripts of such wheels survive from the second half of the thirteenth-century and contain similar vignettes to those later found in the wall paintings; see, for example, Oxford, Bodleian MS Lat. theol. c.2 (Rehm (1994), pl.17): this contains the images of Avarice with money bags, Anger stabbing himself and Gluttony vomiting into a bowl.

The most striking example of such a Wheel in British wall painting was that at Ingatestone (now destroyed). It may also be that the painting of the Sins at Cropredy, described as being in ‘medallion form’ showed a wheel. It seems that at Kingston a diagram (probably a Tree) of the Seven Deadly Sins was set in a circular border, to make it resemble a Wheel. The most famous example of this schema is the table top painting by the School of Bosch (c1500) now in the Prado Museum in Madrid (Gibson (1973), 205-226: Marijnissen (1987), 329-345).

The association between the Sins and the Petitions of the Lord’s Prayer can be found in later medieval didactic literature, for example, the preaching of John Mirk (Erbe (1905), 282-87). However, it was in drama that it found its clearest expression. ‘Pater Noster’ plays recorded in towns such as Beverley and in the City of York seem to have focused on the display figures representing the Sins (Johnston (1975, 70-5). Since no text of any of these plays survives, the parochial wall paintings may be an important piece of evidence for the way these Vices were characterised.

Wheel of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

The Wheel of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy appears to have two possible origins. The Seven Works were included in the Wheel of the Sevens. This example is taken from the De Lisle Psalter.

Wheel of Sevens

  1. Pater Noster (Our Father) Clothe the naked
  2. Adveniat (Thy kingdom) Feed the hungry
  3. Fiat (Thy will be done) Give drink to the thirsty
  4. Panem (Give us this day our daily bread) Visit the sick
  5. Et dimitte (And forgive us) Redeem captives
  6. Et ne nos (Lead us not into temptation) Welcome pilgrims
  7. Sed libera (But deliver us from evil) Bury the dead

(Sandler (1983), 129).

However, the presentation of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in the form of a wheel may also owe something to a different tradition. A diagram of a Cherub was devised by Adam of Lille (d.1202) to demonstrate the Six stages of Penance (Katzenellenbogen (1939), 62; Lewis (1995), 282-3). This allegorical Cherub standing on a wheel is included in a late fourteenth-century painting of the Last Judgement in Chapter House at Westminster Abbey (Turner (1985), 91). In some versions of the subject the Cherub was shown standing on a wheel, a detail which derives from the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel (Sandler (1983), 108 ns 144 and 145). This wheel was inscribed with the names of the Seven Works of Mercy (Sandler (1983), 80).

This pattern is found in the De Lisle Psalter

The Cherub

  1. Vestio (clothe)
  2. Condo (bury)
  3. Viato (sick)
  4. Voco (welcome)
  5. Solor (prisoner)
  6. Cibo (feed)
  7. Poto (drink)

(Sandler (1983), 131).

This schema may explain the frequent inclusion of depictions of angels in other representations of this subject. For example, an angel is shown at the heart of the Wheel at Arundel, angels are depicted turning the Wheel at Kingston and the central figure of the scheme at Dalham may have been a large angel. The Wheel of the Seven Works appears to have been more popular than that of the Sins. In addition to the examples at Kingston and Arundel included in the database, it is also found at Ringshall in Suffolk.

Scenes of the Seven Deadly Sins

In contrast to the potentially mnemonic schema described above, some paintings, such as those at Brooke in Norfolk, present the Sins as individual figures or scenes, set in discrete compartments. This straightforward visual presentation is found in the earliest monumental images of the Sins as personifications in French monumental art, a series of reliefs of the Seven Deadly Sins on the west portal of Notre Dame in Paris (c1210) (Katzenellenbogen (1939), 75-81). The painting at Brooke, where each of the Sins is displayed in the Mouth of Hell, resembles the later benchends at Wigginhall St Germans, Norfolk (Duffy (1992), pls 26 and 27).

Scenes of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

Given the more complex narrative nature of the images, individual scenes were more frequently used to present the Works of Mercy. Some of the earliest-known images of the Works of Mercy present them as individual scenes, for example, the ivory cover of the Psalter of Queen Melisanda (c1131-44) (Kirschbaum (1968), I, 245). Of the paintings included in this database, this schema is found at Catfield, Hoxne, Ruislip, Dalham, Kentford, Quatt, Ruabon, Hardwick, and Milton Abbas, and probably the lost schemes at Brooke and Netherbury. The images described as ‘medallions’ at Hunworth may have been scenes presented in roundels, like those which surround the figure of the good man at Trotton.

Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from a Naked Man

Rather than using an abstract mnemonic scaffold, such as a wheel or tree, this diagram links the Sins to the appropriate limbs of a naked body. The connection of Pride, the chief of sins, with the head is obvious and the appropriate positions of Gluttony and Lust are also clear, but the associations of the parts of the body with Sins are more arbitrary. This schema can be found in Danish wall painting, for example, in the painting of post 1500 at Kongens Lyngby.

Of the corpus of paintings in the database, this schema is found at Arundel and Trotton, both in West Sussex. Further examples survive, mostly notably the fifteenth-century painting at Little Horwood in Buckinghamshire.

(Click to enlarge)

Seven Deadly Sins proceed from naked man. North wall, Little Horwood, Buckinghamshire

(Wall (1914), 197)

The exact origins of this diagram are uncertain. Its use of a central male figure may relate to the naked figure of Old Adam displayed at the top of trees of the Seven Deadly Sins in twelfth-century manuscripts (Katzenellenbogen (1939), 67). Alternatively, the practice may relate to the tradition of reading the limbs and wounds of the Crucified Christ as a guard against the Seven Deadly Sins (See, for example, Barnum (1976), 83-4).

Seven Corporal Works of Mercy arranged around Christ

This schema is found in a painting of c1420-40 at Linkinhorne in Cornwall (Lindley (1953), 112-5). It focuses on an image of Christ, stripped to his loin cloth and with his hands raised to show his wounds. This central image is similar to the standing figure of the wounded Christ found in British art from the fourteenth century (Sekules (1991), 176). The raised hands of Christ are reminiscent of His depiction in the Last Judgement (with which Works of Mercy were closely connected). The composition of the image resembles the display of the Seven Sacraments around a central figure of Christ found in fifteenth-century stained glass in England (Marks (1993), 79).

Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from a Woman (speared by Death)

This image is not clearly present in the corpus included in this database, although the image of a queenly figure described at Ruabon may have been part of such a presentation of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, a distinct group of images using this schema survive from the fourteenth century: Alveley in Shropshire, Little Hampden in Buckinghamshire, Padbury in Buckinghamshire and Raunds in Northamptonshire and Wotton Wawen in Warwickshire. All these show Pride as a regal female with the six Sins proceeding from her. These may ultimately derive from Gregory the Great’s description of Pride as the Queen of the Vices (Rehm (1994), 79). This tradition may be evident in the images of Pride as a queen at the foot of the Tree of Sin in twelfth-century manuscripts (Rehm (1994), 79). The focus seems to be on the idea of Pride as a mother and generator of sin, rather than the more mnemonic presentation of the Sins proceeding from different limbs of the naked man.

This image is usually accompanied by additional figures: trumpeters, a tabor player and a figure of Death (a skeleton or a naked man) who pierces Pride. The consistency of these additional figures suggests a common model. The direct source of this image has not been identified, but several of the elements resemble a more complex image of the Tree of Sins found in the Spiritual Encyclopaedia Verger de Soulas (Porcher (1955), 35: Kosmer (1975), 3). This shows a female figure of Pride twice: once at the top of a tree of sin accompanied by minstrels and menaced by a figure of Death and a second time, as the root of the Tree with the Sins proceeding from her. This form of Tree closely resembles the composition at Ruislip, except that the figure of Pride at the top of the Tree is male. A female figure is also portrayed with the Sins linked to her torso in a late thirteenth-century illumination based on the medieval mnemonic acrostic for the sins ‘SALIGIA’ (Superbia, Avaritia, Luxuria, Ira, Gula, Invidia, Accedia) (Watson (1947), 149). Since she seems to be presented as a ‘good figure’ to whom a kneeling layman is praying, it is unlikely that the British paintings derived from this sort of image.

(Click to enlarge)

The Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from Pride. North wall, Raunds, Northamptonshire.

(Waller (1877), plate opposite, p.133).


Seven Corporal Works of Mercy around a Woman

In British wall paintings, this schema is found only at Potter Heigham in Norfolk (mid fourteenth-century). The nimbed female figure is shown holding what appears to be a lodge or hermitage containing a male figure of a hermit or porter. The same female figure is shown performing the Works. The closest visual parallel is a fresco of c1352 in the loggia of the Bigallo Foundling Hospital in Florence, which shows the Works displayed around a nimbed figure, reminiscent of the Madonna of Mercy (Paatz (1955), I, 384, 390). This composition may relate to that in the Floreffe Bible (c1150) where the Works are displayed around the Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) (Kirschbaum (1968), I, 246). The exact significance of the central figure is uncertain. She may represent the Virgin herself. Alternatively, she may be intended to personify the quality of Mercy or Charity (Tristram (1955), 100).

Seven Deadly Sins around a Clothed Man

At Oddington the sins are displayed around the figure of a clothed man. This central figure is shown in lavish and fashionable clothing, holding a sceptre. Like the female figure of Pride at Raunds, he is shown being crowned by demons.

A clothed man seems to have been part of the Tree-like presentation of the Sins at Quatt. Some Sins appear to have been shown proceeding from his mouth, but this does not seem to have followed the pattern of associating Sins with appropriate limbs found in images of the naked man.

Works of Mercy round a Good Man

This schema is used at Oddington and Trotton. At Oddington the Works are then performed by angels. At Trotton they are performed by a variety of men and women. It is possible that this schema relates to the display of the Works around a Good Woman.

Frau Welt (Female allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins)

A single painting based on this schema is recorded among the paintings of after 1496 in the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford upon Avon (Davidson (1988), pl. 16). Previously identified as the Whore of Babylon, the female figure in this painting is in fact a debased version of Frau Welt. This is an allegorical female figure with animal attributes and motifs and is intended to represent the Seven Deadly Sins. It constitutes a more caricatured and dramatic rendition of the ideas inherent in the image of the naked man with the Sins proceeding from appropriate limbs. Frau Welt seems to have been developed in Central Europe in the mid fourteenth century (Schmidt (1956), 25-6: Stammler (1959), 58, 62-3).

Works of Mercy round an Angel

It appears that an angel is the focus of the scheme at Dalham in Suffolk. This detail may relate to the association of the Cherubim with the Wheel of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy or to the general association of angels with the Works, evident in their frequent inclusion as additional motifs.

Seven Deadly Sins riding on Animals

This schema is found only in the paintings at Hardwick in Cambridgeshire and at Llangar in North Wales (Yates (1993), 38-9). However, it seems to have been the preferred schema for the presentation of the Sins in fifteenth-century English manuscripts, of which the most sophisticated is The Mirroure of the Worlde (Scott (1996), II, 144-5). This schema is also used in late medieval misericords at Norwich (Remmant (1969), xxxix).

The image of the sins mounted on appropriate animals first appears in a didactic work, Lumen Animae, compiled in Austria by Godfrey of Vorau sometime before 1332 and it was subsequently distributed with a popular didactic text known as the Etymachia (Norman (1988), 198-9). In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a wide variety of different animals was suggested as appropriate for each sin (Bloomfield (1976), 245-9). This schema is also found in literature. The order of the Sins at Hardwick is the same as that in The Assembly of the Gods, attributed to Lydgate, although only four of the animals seem to match (lion, boar, goat and ass) (Triggs (1896), 19).

Cycle of Sins mounted on animals in The Mirroure of the Worlde

  1. Pride Lion (fol.17 Pl. XI)
  2. Envy Dog (with bone and 2nd dog) (fol.38v Pl. XII)
  3. Anger Lion (fol.42 Pl. XIII)
  4. Sloth Ass (fol.48v Pl. XIV)
  5. Avarice Man sitting at desk counting from money box (fol.59 Pl. XV)
  6. Lechery Ram (woman with mirror) (fol.67v Pl. XVI)
  7. Gluttony Sow (eating joint of meat, flask at waist) (fol.72v Pl.XVII)

(Scott (1980), 14).

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