Seven Liberal Arts: Grammar

When I started reading about Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Grammar (more on that painting below), I was shocked to discover that I had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree without ever knowing what the “arts” part referred to. It’s short for “liberal arts,” which has nothing to do with politics.  The Latin liberalis means “having to do with a free man”. Among the Greeks, and as adopted and adapted by the Romans, the liberal arts were the skills that a free man required to actively participate in civic life: being able to engage in public debate, to defend oneself in court, to serve on juries, and to serve in the military. By the 5th c. A.D., the liberal arts were systematized into

  • The trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric
  • The quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music theory, and astronomy

That raised the question: What essential skills does a free person need today? Do the original liberal arts still have something to contribute? As a former homeschooling parent and a concerned American citizen, I consider these excruciatingly important questions. Over the next several weeks, I’m going to work through some artistic renditions of the liberal arts and ponder that question. I don’t expect have an answer that satisfies me by the end of the series. But I’ll never get the answer if I don’t ask the question.


According to Rabanus (780-856), grammar is “the science which teaches us to explain the poets and historians, and the art which qualifies us to speak and write correctly” (translation from Aartz, The Mind of the Middle Ages [1980], p. 308). In the Middle Ages, students of grammar learned Latin (the alphabet, pronunciation, parts of speech, grammatical rules, composition), then read fables, proverbs, poetry, psalms, and excerpts from the Church Fathers. They were taught to understand complex constructions, to appreciate particularly beautiful passages, and to look critically at what they read. Of course, in the Middle Ages the extent of critical thinking was severely limited. It takes a great mind to break out of the context one was raised in.

The breadth of this definition of “grammar” surprised me. It includes not just proper construction of sentences, but reading, comprehension, and esthetic appreciation. It also involves learning to think and to judge. My favorite allegorical representation of Grammar doesn’t imply quite that much, but it does show that grammar is more than just parts of speech.

Laurent de La Hyre, Grammar, 1650. Walters Art Gallery. Photo: Wikipedia

La Hyre based his allegorical figure on the words of Cesare Ripa, whose 1603 Iconologia collected and/or invented attributes and attitudes for hundreds of allegorical figures, from Abondanza to Zelo. I was hoping to crib a translation of his section on Grammar from the 1709 English edition – the only English translation I’ve been able to find online. Alas, the translation includes far fewer entries. Of the seven Liberal Arts, only arithmetic and astronomy made the cut.

Never one to shirk a linguistic challenge, I waded through 400-year-old Italian to get the gist of Ripa on Grammar. He describes grammar as the “first among the seven liberal arts,” and gives two possibilities for representing an allegorical figure of Grammar. First: a woman holding in her left hand a lash  (to “encourage” children to learn). From her breasts flow milk (because knowledge is nourishing). In her right hand is a scroll bearing the words, “Vox litterata & articulata, debito modo pronunciata” (“Speech that is educated, and pronounced in the proper way”). That’s a good bit narrower than Rabanus, isn’t it? But perhaps it’s meant to be an identification via a brief reminder.

Ripa’s second option for representing Grammar is a woman holding an iron rasp (a coarse file) in her right hand, because grammar arouses and refines the intellect. In her left hand is a pitcher with which she waters tender plants, because grammar gives young minds the fruits of knowledge and wisdom (frutti di dottrina, e di sapere).

What La Hyre brings to the party, 47 years after the publication of Ripa’s Iconologia, is the appearance of the woman: calm, caring, maternal, gentle. No instruments of punishment or torture!


  • An allegorical figure is a human figure representing not a real or fictional person, but an abstract idea or concept. The most familiar one is Justice: a woman with a blindfold holding scales for weighing facts, and a sword for executing judgment. Other common examples are Liberty, Music, Fame, and Victory. Often the attributes of allegorical figures are so attenuated that unless they have a title attached, it’s impossible to tell what they represent. See, for example, this fresco of Grammar by Tiepolo at the Metropolitan Museum. And here’s a fun, frivolous, French version of Grammar.
  • Two versions of La Hyre’s Grammar exist, one at the Walters Art Gallery, the other at the National Gallery in London. Wine, Ackroyd and Burnstock argue persuasively that the Walters  version is a copy, although it may well have been done by La Hyre himself.  — I prefer the colors on the London version, but the National Gallery insists that it owns the copyright on images of paintings it holds, no matter how long ago the painting was created; so I can’t illustrate their version here.
  • Doctrina and Sapientia – learning and wisdom – are the labels on the torches flanking the sculpture of Alma Mater on the campus of Columbia University. Think about the difference between those two for a while: it’s the difference, for example, between spewing statistics and specialized jargon, and being able to tie your abstract ideas back to observable, concrete, specific objects and events. See also the quote from Bacon that’s the sidebar of the essay on Alma Mater in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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