The Greatest Virtue

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m writing this post with love in mind; not the romantic type that most people associate with February 14, but instead the kind of love that St. Paul described in his first epistle to the Corinthians as “patient and kind,” that “does not insist on its own way,” and that “does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Latin translators called it “caritas,” the root of the English word charity. Over the years, theologians have written at length about charity and its centrality to spiritual life.

St. Ambrose (photo 1, below), writing in the fourth century, identified seven virtues: faith, hope, charity, temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. The first three are based on Paul’s famous passage in 1st Corinthians and are called “theological virtues.” St. Paul said of them that “the greatest of these is charity.” The remaining four, drawn from Plato’s Republic, are known as the “cardinal virtues.”  By the 1200’s when the great Gothic cathedrals were under construction in Europe, the number had grown to an even dozen with the addition of chastity, humility, patience, obedience, and perseverance.

1. St. Ambrose, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

1. St. Ambrose, Cologne Cathedral

On the exteriors of the French Gothic cathedrals, medieval sculptors often fashioned allegorical figures of the virtues in the guise of maidens. They paired each virtue with an opposing vice. Charity, for example, appears with avarice (greed) and faith stands opposite idolatry. In photo 2, taken at Notre Dame in Paris, we see an example with Humility holding a shield with a humble dove carved on it. She appears above a sculpted medallion where a cocky rider, representing Pride, tumbles off his bucking horse.

2. Humility & Pride, Allegorical Figures, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

2. Humility & Pride, Allegorical Figures at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France (click to enlarge)

As for Charity, the eminent art historian Emile Male observes in The Gothic Image that 13th century French craftsmen were not quite as imaginative as their Italian counterparts in sculpting the allegorical figures. The sculptures of Charity in France tend to depict scenes of simple alms-giving which is, Male says, “an effect of charity and moreover a wholly outward effect.” He points to a “still finer conception” at the church of Or San Michele in Florence where, in Ortagna’s renowned Tabernacle and in a marble plaque sculpted by Giovanni di Balduccio (photos 3 & 4), Charity cares for two toddlers, who may have been seen as orphans, and “presents her flaming heart to God.” The artist seemed to be trying to capture theologian Peter Lombard’s notion that charity is “love of God and love of one’s neighbor for the sake of God and in God.” The close-up in photo 4 clearly shows the tongue of flame and milk flowing from Charity’s left breast.

3. Charitas by Giovanni di Balduccio (1317-1349), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

3. Charitas by Giovanni di Balduccio (1317-1349), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Charitas Detail, Giovanni di Balduccio,   National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Charitas Detail, Giovanni di Balduccio, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Thirteenth century sculptors and stained glass artists were not content, of course, to depict core Christian principles such as faith and charity only through allegorical figures. They memorialized in art many individuals who were role models and inspirations for the nobles, clergy, and common folk of the day. We’ll turn now to consider the lives of a man and two women whose names are (nearly) synonymous with various aspects of charity and whose stories appear in cathedral art. They are Martin of Tours, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Elizabeth Fry of England.  We’ll find them at Chartres Cathedral in France and the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

5. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Help for the Poor  Martin of Tours lived in the fourth century, shortly after Emperor Constantine decided to end the persecution of Christians. Martin later became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 500 villages and 4,000 parish churches in France are dedicated to him. What made him so popular? Martin was a man of conviction and compassion. As a young soldier in the Roman army, he came to believe that his Christian faith was at odds with military service. He protested his assignment in combat in one of the first recorded examples of “conscientious objection,” and was promptly put in jail for it. When hostilities ended, he was discharged and went on to become a monk and later the bishop of Tours in 372.

The impetus for his turn from the military to a life in the church was a famous episode that took place while Martin’s legion was stationed in Amiens, about 70 miles north of Paris. Upon entering the city, Martin saw a half-naked beggar sitting near one of the gates. Feeling compassion for the shivering man, Martin cut his military cape in half to help clothe him. Later, Martin had a dream in which Christ appeared wearing the cloak he had given away. Afterwards, Martin resolved to be baptized and take a different path.

South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

6. South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

Tympanum, St. Martin (left) and St. Nicholas (right), Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Tympanum, St. Martin (left) and St. Nicholas (right), Chartres Cathedral, France

The story of Martin’s charity appears in sculpture on the south porch of Chartres Cathedral (photo 6). In a tympanum above the doorway on the far right of the porch, we find St. Martin on the left and a legend about St. Nicholas on the right (photo 7). On the lower level of the tympanum, near the center, Martin knocks at the gate in Amiens. To the left, he sits on his mount as the (headless) beggar wraps himself in half of the cape. Martin’s attendant looks on from behind the horse (photo 8).  In the scene immediately above, Martin sleeps in a bed while his footman sleeps on the ground. A piece of the cloak hovers above Martin to connote his compelling dream about Christ and the cloak (photo 9).

St. Martin, the Beggar, and the Cloak, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. St. Martin, the Beggar, and the Cape, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. St. Martin's Dream, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. St. Martin’s Dream, Chartres Cathedral, France

Martin’s cape has had an impact on language as well as art. After he became a saint, the Merovingian kings of France preserved Martin’s half of the cape as a relic in a small room used for private worship in Marmoutier Abbey. Later, the cloak (cappa in Italian) was often kept in small temporary churches when it accompanied the French armies into battle. The small churches and prayer rooms came to be known as cappella, or “chapels,” and the priests who tended the cape in service with the military were called “chaplains.” A Caribbean island (Martinique) and countless men and women (Martine, Martina) have been named for Martin of Tours including the sixteenth century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. The Lutheran church in Milwaukee where I was baptized and confirmed is dedicated to “St. Martini.”

Help for the Sick   Elizabeth of Hungary lived from 1207 to 1231. She was a princess, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary.  Elizabeth married at the age of 14 and was widowed six years later when her husband, Louis, succumbed to the plague while he was on a Crusade. Elizabeth emerged from her mourning determined to live simply and austerely as a lay-person but in line with Franciscan principles. She managed to reclaim her dowry and used it to build a small hospital near her house in Marburg. She tended the sick and infirm for the remainder of her brief life. Pope Gregory IX canonized her in 1235.  The Humanitarians Windows at the Washington National Cathedral, designed by Rowan and Irene LeCompte, portray Elizabeth in her role as a nurse to an ailing man and two children (photo 11). To the right of the sickbed scene, the stylized steeples of a church most likely allude to the saint’s shrine at the Elizabethkirche in Marburg, Germany. Churches dedicated to Elizabeth of Hungary appear in both Europe and North America.

10. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

10. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

Help for Prisoners   Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich, England in 1780 to a Quaker family whose relatives included some members of the Barclay’s bank. She was moved by the preaching of an American Quaker to take an interest, at the age of 18, in the plight of England’s poor, sick, and imprisoned people. That interest would last a lifetime and take her to the Houses of Parliament where she became the first woman, in 1818, to testify before a parliamentary committee as she presented evidence on the deplorable conditions in England’s prisons. Working with influential friends and family, she organized societies for “the Reformation of Female Prisoners.”  She also established a “nightly shelter” for the homeless in London after she reportedly saw the body of a young boy frozen to death on a London street in the winter of 1819-20. Her example still inspires many others to advocate for incarcerated women. Elizabeth Fry Societies work throughout Canada “to support criminalized and marginalized women, girls, and children….” [See the mission statement for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver at].

Like her saintly medieval namesake, Elizabeth Fry’s charitable efforts are commemorated in the Humanitarians Windows at the Washington National Cathedral.  Wearing Quaker garb, she gazes downward at the pleading faces of disembodied women whose torsos are concealed by the stonework of prison walls. Chains interlace the scene (photo 11). The Bank of England has also seen fit to honor Elizabeth Fry’s humanitarian work by placing an image of her on the back of the £5 British note [].

Elizabeth Fry, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

11. Elizabeth Fry, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

St. Paul’s words—“and the greatest of these is love”—appear across the bottom of the Humanitarians Windows to remind us that the greatest virtue goes hand in glove with the great commandment, that is, to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neighbor as ourselves.  Finally, in a minor concession to the inveterate romantics among you, here’s a photo of the “Heart of Yorkshire,” a thoroughly unique stained glass window at York Minster in England (photo 12). Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

Heart of Yorkshire from a slide, York Minster, York, England

12. Heart of Yorkshire Window from a slide, York Minster, England

Mike Klug,, 02-14-2015

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Virtue

  1. Well done Michael, as always! I’ve always thought love to be the most essential virtue but lately I’ve rethought it. Maya Angelou’s insight resonates with me and the challenge of my spinal cord injury has forced me to search for my courage.

    “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
    Maya Angelou

  2. Thank you Wags. Your comment about courage and Maya Angelou’s insight brought to mind an essay by Alan Paton that I read years ago. In “The Challenge of Fear,” he wrote about a connection between courage and love that I visualized as “two sides of the same coin.” The essay was part of the “What I have Learned” series published in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1960’s. Paton wrote, “Life has taught me that John uttered the plain and simple truth when he wrote that there is no fear in love, but that perfect love casts out fear. In one sense, the opposite of fear is courage, but in the dynamic sense the opposite of fear is love, whether this be love of man or love of justice.” So, whether it’s courage, love, or both; whatever it is that inspires you to live your life as you do consistently fills me with admiration.

  3. Anne Richardson says:

    Mike, as always I learn so much from your blog and it is always a joy for me to learn more about WNC. Your depth and breadth of knowledge is impressive!

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