The Seven Deadly Sins
A Medieval Morality
It is good to represent the fruits of humility and pride as a kind of visual image so that anyone studying to improve himself can clearly see what things will result from them. Therefore we show the novices and untutored men two little trees, differing in fruits and in size, each displaying the characteristics of the virtues and the vices, so that people may understand the products of each and choose which of the trees they would establish in themselves.¹
What is said here about the value of images dates back ultimately to St Gregory the Great, who had been anxious that ‘those who know no letters may yet read’. The purpose of that reading is of course moral improvement and in due course not only ‘novices and untutored men’ in a monastic environment were able to see these lessons, but ordinary folk in the parishes as well.
Some of the earliest parish paintings of the Sins are based on a wheel-diagram, such as that at Padbury, Buckinghamshire, but the painted tree-arrangement, with its echoes of Eden, the Fall and the Expulsion, found favour quite early as well. Well before 1400, the symbolism was clearly part of the equipment of the average parish priest – Chaucer’s verbose Parson begins his exposition of the Seven Deadly Sins with tree imagery². But other forms evolved based more directly on personifications which made the root and origin of all sin very specific. These generally make use of a central human figure (it may be male, as at Little Horwood, or female, as at Raunds), appropriately enough, as it was through the greatest of all Deadly Sins, Pride, that Lucifer fell, thus infecting the whole of humankind. The most remarkable painted account of the Seven Deadly Sins, at Chaldon in Surrey, where it is included in the very early painting of the Purgatorial Ladder there, is now on the site, and is linked in the table below. (Note added October, 2008)
¹JP Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus. Series Latina, quoted in Caiger-Smith, p.50 (see Site Bibliography Page)
²Canterbury Tales: The Parson’s Tale (page 239), Chaucer, Works, ed.Robinson, 2nd edn. OUP, 1957