The Seven Liberal Arts and the West Door of Chartres Cathedral

The Seven Liberal Arts and the West Door of Chartres Cathedral

By Titus Burckhardt

Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1969)

Introduction: According to the medieval theologians the Virgin Mary, by virtue of the innate perfection of her soul, possessed all the wisdom of which man is capable. A direct reference to this wisdom is to be found in the allegories of the seven liberal arts which, just outside an inner circle of adoring angels, decorate the tympanum of the Door of the Virgin. In the medieval context the seven sciences—which were classified as the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—were not exclusively empirical sciences, as are those we know today. They were the expression of so many faculties of the soul, faculties demanding harmonious development. This is why they were also called arts.

Following ancient tradition, Dante, in his “Convivio”, compares the seven liberal arts to the seven planets, grammar corresponding to the moon, logic to Mercury, rhetoric to Venus, arithmetic to the sun, music to Mars, geometry to Jupiter, and astronomy to Saturn. The creators of the Royal Door of Chartres were certainly aware of this correspondence. It is thus doubly significant that on the tympanum of the left of the three doors the signs of the zodiac are portrayed. These belong to the unchanging heaven of fixed stars and thus represent, the kingdom of the Divine Spirit, to Whom this door, with its representation of the ascension of Christ, is dedicated. The seven planets, on the other hand, govern, according to the ancient viewpoint, the world of the soul. And Mary is the human soul in all its perfection.

By means of the signs of the zodiac—not all of which, incidentally, appear on the same door, Pisces and Gemini, having had to be transposed, for want of room, to the Door of the Virgin—the arches surrounding the representation of Christ’s ascension (on the left-hand door), can be seen to represent the firmament. Beside each of the twelve signs of the zodiac the corresponding month is represented pictorially in the form of its natural activity.

These natural activities—one for each month—are the terrestrial reflections of the twelve signs of the zodiac. From them one learns to what extent the course of human existence depends upon the heavens: in seedtime and harvest, in work and leisure; for the heavens, in their cycle, bring heat after cold, dry after wet, and thus keep life in being.

This is significant for medieval art: in two tympanums and in the arches surrounding them, the whole cosmos is represented, in its three great divisions: spiritual, psychic, and corporeal. Medieval man always kept the profound order of things in mind.

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