The cardinal Virtues in the symbols of art: prudence

After the theological virtues Piero del Pollaiolo continues his work on the Virtues presenting Prudence as the first among the cardinal virtues as it guides them.

by Mario Vitali

Fig. 1 – Piero del Pollaiolo – Prudence

In the contemporary imagination, prudence is conceived as a slow motion or an attitude tending to avoid risks or, again, a form of cowardice that avoids making decisions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church at n ° 1806 states: “The caution it is virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the adequate means to accomplish it. The man “shrewd checks his steps” (Prv 14.15). “Be moderate and sober to dedicate yourself to prayer” (1 Pt 4.7). Prudence is the “right rule of action”, writes St. Thomas82 in the wake of Aristotle. It is not confused with shyness or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called “charioteer virtutum – coachman of the virtues “: she directs the other virtues by indicating their rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man decides and orders his own conduct following this judgment. Thanks to the virtue of prudence, we apply moral principles to particular cases without making mistakes and overcome doubts about the good to be done and the evil to avoid. “

Observing the work of Pollaiolo we see that Prudence, like the other virtues, sits on the throne, a symbol of command, a command that guides the just to practice it, to make this virtue become the criterion of our actions and the direction of our actions. , it is the virtue that also directs the other virtuous acts of fortitude, justice and temperance towards the just end.

In the right hand, prudence, represented by a woman, holds a mirror, the artist seems to have been inspired by a passage from the Old Testament (Wis. 7:26): “Wisdom is a reflection of perennial light, a spotless mirror of God’s activity and an image of his goodness ”. The mirror is rich in symbolic meanings, through it the woman looks behind her, it is therefore a symbol of foresight and circumspection that allows us to avoid the pitfalls of evil.

The mirror, with which one observes one’s face, is also the symbol of self-knowledge, an indispensable condition for doing good.

There are many artists who have represented the virtue of Prudence with the image of the mirror. Among the most famous is the fresco by Giotto (1267ca-1337) in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Fig. 2).

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Fig. 2 – Prudence – Giotto di Bondone

Giotto presents Prudence sitting in the chair with an open book on a lectern looking at a mirror held by his left hand, while with his right hand he holds a compass. The mirror invites reflection and reflection, also in this case it allows you to look at what is behind you, keeping in mind the past and keeping the memory alive.

Prudence is therefore an evaluative virtue, linked to human reason, which helps to make the right decisions, distinguishing good from evil, orienting towards good and truth.

Returning to Pollaiolo’s work, we observe that in her left hand the woman holds a snake, a symbol of foresight. This representation also seems inspired by Sacred Scripture, by the Gospel passage in which we read “Behold: I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be prudent as serpents and simple as doves ”(Matthew 10,16). The Lord therefore sends us in the midst of the wolves with prudence and simplicity, he does not say to be sheltered, safe, but rather to act with awareness and not to remove responsibility.

The snake, a symbol that in paganism means the cyclical renewal of time, in the allegory proposed by Pollaiolo wraps the woman’s arm forming a circle that seems to want to allude to the perennial need to exercise prudence.

Reflection on actions and on our past therefore leads us to foresee the consequences of our future decisions on our own life and on that of others.

This is how Benedict XVI pronounced himself in his homily on 12 September 2009: “… a misunderstanding must be eliminated immediately. Prudence is different from cunning. Prudence, according to the Greek philosophical tradition, is the first of the cardinal virtues; it indicates the primacy of truth, which through “prudence” becomes the criterion for our actions. Prudence requires humble, disciplined and vigilant reason, which does not allow itself to be dazzled by prejudices; he does not judge according to desires and passions, but seeks the truth – even the inconvenient truth. Prudence means searching for the truth and acting in a way that conforms to it. The prudent servant is above all a man of truth and a man of sincere reason. “

Saturday, September 10, 2022

The cardinal Virtues in the symbols of art: prudence – Catholic Alliance