Field Guide

The Cardinal Virtues

The Most Common gatherings of sculpted human forms in the cemetery are groupings of the Virtues. There are seven Virtues, usually divided into two groups. There are three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity; and four cardinal, or moral virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice. Let's look at the four cardinal.

Temperance crops up in cemetery sculptures on the tombs of prohibitionists and teetotalers. She is usually seen with some sort of water pitcher, extolling the virtues of clean living, and sometimes also with a torch. Other attributes of Temperance are a bridle and bit (control) and a sheathed sword (restraint).

Scultures of Prudence are not often seen in the cemetery since, in art, she has two heads and may be portrayed with a snake or dragon, which doesn't fit well with the other Virtues. Other times she is simply seen with a mirror. The two heads and the mirror are not symbols of vanity; rather, they are used to symbolize the wisdom of the quest for self-knowledge.

Fortitude is depicted as a female warrior. In art, she is often seen with a club and wearing little more than a helmet and a shield. In the cemetery, sculptors portray her in a confident stance (hand on hip) with a large stick, club, or sword at her side. She may also be seen with a column at her side, an allusion to Samson's destruction of the Philistine temple.

Scultures of Justice are more likely to be seen hovering over the entrance to courthouses than in the cemetery. Justice is one of the easier virtues to identify, since she is always shown holding scales. An angel with scales is the Archangel Michael. Popular mythology says that depictions of Justice always show her blindfolded, suggesting Justice is not influenced by outside appearances. In fact, Baroque artists added the blindfold; many depictions of Justice show her with a straighfoward stare.

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.

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