To view images and more about this fresco, click here.
Volume 2, Parents and Children, pg 268-270
John Ruskin did modern thought a great service when he interpreted for us the harmonious and inspiring presentation of education and philosophy that's recorded on one of the four walls of the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of St. Maria Novella, in Florence. He calls it the 'Vaulted Book.'
Many of those reading this book have probably studied, with Ruskin's help, the enlightening lessons of the frescoes that cover the roofs and walls. But I don't think any will mind being reminded of the message they reflected on with reverence and awe. 'The descent of the Holy Spirit is on the left (of the roof) as you enter. The Madonna and the Disciples are gathered in an upper room. Underneath them are foreigners such as Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., all hearing the Disciples as if they're speaking their own language. There are three dogs in the foreground. They symbolize the lower animals made gentle as a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit . . . On this side and the opposite side of the Chapel, the artist has represented the Spirit of God's power to teach, and the saving power of the Son of God working in the world, shown according to the understanding of Florence at the time of the fresco.
'Let's look at the intellectual side of the fresco first. In the point of the arch, underneath the outpouring Holy Spirit, are the three Evangelical Virtues [love, faith, hope]. Florence believed that without these, you couldn't have science. Without Love, Hope and Faith, there could be no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues--Moderation, Caution, Fairness and Resoluteness. Underneath these are the great Prophets and Apostles. Under the group of Prophets are the mythic figures of the seven religious sciences and the seven natural sciences, as if they're powers that were summoned by the Prophets' voices. Under the feet of the sciences are the Captain/teachers of those sciences who presented those subjects to the world.'
I hope you will continue to study Ruskin's teaching about 'the Vaulted Book,' which is part of his book, 'Mornings in Florence.' It's full of wonderful teachings and suggestions. But our immediate concern is with the seven mythic figures who represent the natural sciences, and the Captain/teacher of each one. First is Grammar, pictured as a gracious figure teaching three children of Florence. Its Captain/teacher is Priscian. Next is Rhetoric, who is strong, calm and composed. Its Captain/teacher is Cicero, who has a beautiful face. Then comes Logic, with perfect poise and a lovely expression. Her Captain/teacher is Aristotle, who has keen, searching intensity in his half-closed eyes. Next is Music, with her head inclined to one side as she listens intently to the sweet, solemn notes she's playing on her antique instrument. Her Captain/teacher pictures Tubal Cain (not Jubal) as the inventor of harmony. That might be the most marvelous statement that Art has ever created about the impact of a great idea on the soul of a man [Tubal Cain] who was only semi-civilized. Astronomy is next. She has a majestic brow and her hand is upraised. Her Captain/teacher is Zoroaster, pictured as exceedingly beautiful, a 'delicate Persian head made even softer with its elaborate crown of silky hair.' Next, Geometry looks down, contemplating some practical geometry problem, with a carpenter's square in her hand. Her Captain/teacher is Euclid. And last is Arithmetic, holding up two fingers as an aid in calculating a sum. Her Captain/teacher is Pythagoras, and he's wrapped up in solving some math problem.
'The thoughts of God are broader than the whole span of man's mind.'
Yet in this fresco, we have minds that are so broad and wide in the sweep of their intelligence, and so profound in their insight, that we're almost startled to realize that, here, pictured on these walls, we see a true measure of the thoughts of God.
Volume 6, Home Education, pg 141
The medieval church had a wonderful thought when they presented the foundational idea of each of the seven Liberal Arts by having each one represented by a person who was great in that field and who could convince others with the same reason that had convinced themselves. [I think this is referring to the Santa Maria Novella fresco in Florence]. Thus, Priscian is represented as being the one through whom grammar came to the world, Pythagoras is represented as teaching the world arithmetic, and Euclid represents the science that he applied his reason to.
Volume 6, Home Education, pg 284
All of the Danish High Schools bear the influence of their 'Father,' and their students sometimes sum up his teaching with the three statements, 'Spirit is might; Spirit reveals itself in spirit; Spirit works only in freedom.' We can easily trace where these statements came from. In fact, the entire movement seems to have been very Christian from its very beginning. And I don't mean Christian in a narrow, exclusive sense, but in the broad sense illustrated by Simone Memmi's fresco in Florence's chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Some of the teachers pictured there as being divinely gifted by God's spirit were actually notable pagans. Yet they were still under Divine inspiration. This seems to me to be an educational concept worth reviving, especially in these days of utilitarian vocational emphasis. Grundtvig seems to have understood this concept, although he probably came up with it on his own.
Volume 6, Home Education, pg 321-322
We know that medieval people had a better concept of knowledge than we've come up with. We think of knowledge as something compiled of shreds and bits and pieces--we have sketchy knowledge of this or that, with huge gaps in between.
Medieval people, with their scholarly minds, worked out a magnificent 'Philosophy of the Catholic Religion.' They were probably basing that on the scattered hints in Scripture. Their concept is pictured in the great fresco painted by [supposedly] Simone Memmi and Taddeo Gaddi that John Ruskin taught us about. It's also implied in the Van Eycks' 'Adoration of the Lamb.' In the first fresco, we see the Holy Spirit descending, first upon the four cardinal virtues [prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude] and the Christian graces [faith, hope and charity], then upon the prophets and apostles, and, under these, upon the seven Liberal Arts [grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music]. Each of these Seven is represented by its leading figure--Cicero, Aristotle, Zoroaster, etc.--and not one of them is a Christian or a Hebrew. This presents the idea that all knowledge (in its original, untainted form) comes directly from heaven and is planted in minds that are prepared to receive it, as Coleridge says. It's planted in whichever mind is prepared, without regard to whether it's the mind of a pagan or a Christian. This seems to me to be a truly enlightened, broad-minded idea that corresponds perfectly with the way the world operates.
Volume 6, Home Education, pg 323
Our confused theories of education stem from our jumbled concepts of knowledge. Let's quote a passage from Ruskin's description of the fresco in the Church of Santa Maria Novella that I mentioned above:
'On either side of the chapel, Simon Memmi has represented the power of God to teach, and the power of Christ to save. That's how the Florentines understood the world at that time...
'...Let's look at the intellect first. Under the descending Holy Spirit, we see the point of the arch, with the Three Evangelical Virtues (faith, hope, love) under it. Florentines believed that, without these, there could be no science or intelligence. Under those are the four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude. Under those are the great Prophets and Apostles. Under the Prophets, pictured as if the Prophets were summoning them, are the allegorical figures of the seven theological sciences, and the seven natural sciences. Under the feet of each of these is the figure of the man who taught it to the world.' (from Ruskin's book Mornings in Florence.)
In other words, the Florentines living in the Middle Ages believed that 'the Spirit of God had the power to teach.' They believed that not only the seven Liberal Arts were completely under the direct outpouring of God's Spirit, but every fruitful idea or original concept, whether geometry, grammar or music, was directly derived from a Divine source.
Whether we accept it or not, we can't fail to see that this is a harmonious and uplifting blueprint of education and philosophy. The Scriptures abundantly support this kind of theory about how knowledge comes to us. It's too bad that the demands of Ruskin's immediate work prevented him from researching further into the ultimate origin of knowledge.