The Tree of Virtues and the Tree of Vices in Beinecke MS 416
By Matthew Aleksinas
Published online (2006)
Introduction: The triumph of the virtues over the vices was a standard allegorical construction from Late Antiquity through the Medieval Period. As the genre developed, two representations of the antithetical forces emerged. First, images of the virtues and vices drew from late-Roman battle scenes, depicting a dynamic struggle. However, by the ninth century, static representations of the virtues and vices began to permeate religious texts. Elaborated by medieval theologians, theoretical insight into the essential nature of the virtues and vices and their relationship to one another developed into structured allegorical forms, such as trees and wheels. The trees of virtues and vices in Beinecke MS 416 create a systematized schematic illustrating the attainment of divine grace through humility, distinguished from damning earthly passions rooted in pride.
From their early stages, representations of virtues and vices functioned as guides to help monks avoid sin. Trees of virtues and vices offered images of correct and incorrect spiritual paths. They displayed a spectrum of morality progressing from the basest earthliness (capital vices) to heavenly righteousness (cardinal virtues), in which monks could interpret and contemplate the associations between each abstraction.