In 1279, the Dominican Frère Laurent wrote (or perhaps compiled) the Somme le roi, a moral treatise on the vices and virtues, for King Philippe III of France. At least 15 copies of the treatise included a variation of this illumination, the Virtue Garden, including this copy from 1295 (Kosmer 1978: 303).
The seven virtues depicted in the garden are the virtues associated with the Beatitudes. But why seven, when there are eight Beatitudes? The Somme follows a tradition laid down in the early fifth century by Saint Augustine of Hippo, who counted them as seven, rather than eight, treating the eighth Beatitude as a recapitulation of the first, since both name the same reward (‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’). Augustine also, innovatively, paired the seven Beatitudes with the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as found in Isaiah 11. The symbolism of the Virtue Garden springs from these sets of sevens.
Seven trees in the garden represent the seven Beatitudes and their associated virtues—for example, ‘those who mourn’ corresponds to the virtue of patience (Kosmer 1978: 304). An eighth tree in the garden is taller than the rest; its leafy crown breaks through the top frame. The text below the Virtue Garden explains that this one represents Christ, ‘under whom the virtues grow’.
The seven women represent the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; they water the trees with streams of water representing the gifts of the Spirit. In this way, the garden depicts a petition producing a spiritual gift, which in turn ‘waters’ the virtue of each Beatitude. For example, praying ‘Deliver us from evil’ produces the gift of wisdom, which nurtures poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3), that is, the virtue of humility. According to the Somme, the seven trees (the Beatitudes) bear the fruit of eternal life. Thus, the keeping of the Beatitudes begins in prayer and ends in the reward of eternal happiness with God. In this way, the Virtue Garden points to the necessity of God’s grace and Christ’s help in becoming meek, merciful, and pure in heart.
Kosmer, Ellen. 1978. ‘Gardens of Virtue in the Middle Ages’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 41: 302–7
5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.