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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on the iconography of prudentia

This is a companion exhibit to the IN BRIEF topic on prudentia, and a supplement to the GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society emblem, with its introductory discussion of prudentia iconography (see the related entries, CAT. 28 and CAT. 29, in the gallery catalog), which will probably be moved here.

Recent scholarship avers that the importance of prudential deliberation and reasoning was greatly diminished after the Renaissance:

From classical antiquity to the Renaissance, the intellectual and moral virtue of prudence, or practical reasoning, was assumed to be part of the education and training of the orator, the politician, and the prince. Devalued, and stripped of both its ethical and intellectual qualities in the years of the European Enlightenment, prudence has resurfaced as one of the most sought after virtues for restoration in modern times.

(from the article on “Prudence” in Oxford University
Press’ Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O. Sloane)

While it is true that our own impoverished notion of prudence as little more than “calculating self-interest” may well be traced back to the much-disparaged age of enlightenment, it is also true that the Enlightenment’s practices of critical rationality (especially those associated with the new science) are not wholly to blame for this.

There was, in fact, a rich post-Renaissance tradition of prudentia — revealed in its iconography — that bears closer investigation.

During the early modern period, the virtue of prudence was not just taught to the orator, politician, and prince, but was popularized for the middling classes — children and adults alike — through its iconography (as traditionally figured and taught in the emblem literature) and its inclusion in one of the most influential picture-books of the age, Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (for a brief introduction to this educational classic, see the spread on “The Booksellers Shop”, located directly below the Table of Contents listing for the top-level LIBRARY page.)

Comenius’ Orbis Pictus, with its “entertaining” delineations (copper and wood engravings) and innovative approach (teaching words and things together, hand in hand) had an enormous circulation, and was translated into most European languages, along with some Oriental languages as well. It remained for a long time the most popular textbook in Europe. For example, about 100 years after its initial publication, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), whose holistic, participative way of science has been suggested as a model for science in the 21st century, used Orbis Pictus (which took a similarly intuitive approach to the natural world) as a child.

The last English edition of Orbis Pictus appeared in 1777, and was reprinted in the United States in 1812. So Comenian pedagogy also made its way across the Atlantic, and was influential in the Americas as well as in Europe. Indeed, the New England Puritan, Cotton Mather, recorded in his Magnalia that Comenius had at one point even been solicited to become President of Harvard College (subsequent to the resignation of President Dunster in 1654):

That brave old man, Johannes Amos Commenius, the fame of whose worth has been Trumpetted as far as more than three languages (whereof everyone is indebted unto his Janua) could carry it, was indeed agreed withal, by one Mr. Winthrop in his travels through the Low Countries, to come over to New England, and illuminate their Colledge and Country, in the quality of a President, which was now become vacant. But the solicitations of the Swedish Ambassador diverting him another way, that incomparable Moravian became not an American.

Comenius’ Orbis Pictus (which developed from his earlier Janua Linguarum Reserta, pub. Leszno, 1631) aimed at giving readers a multilingual (verbal and visual, Latin and vernacular) “picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein.” Included among the 151 illustrated chapters comprising this encyclopedic survey of the phenomenal world is a chapter dedicated to prudentia, in the book’s section on self-realization (fulfilling one’s nature as a human being by developing the virtues). Significantly, the chapter on prudentia is directly preceded by a chapter on ethica (moral philosophy), and it is followed by chapters on sedulitas (diligence), temperantia (temperance), fortitudo (fortitude), patientia (patience), humanitas (humanity), justitia (justice), and liberalitas (liberality). This section on the virtues is, in turn, followed by a section on human relations (man and wife, blood relations, masters and servants, urban citizenry), which is immediately followed by discussion of the arts and professions (the law, merchandizing, medicine, play-acting, magic, sports, royalty, the military). Following this is the book’s closing section on religion, with chapters on Gentilism, Judaism, Christianity, “Mahometism” (Islam), “Gods Providence,” and “The last Judgement.”

This structure positions prudentia at the center of Comenius’ picture of life, manners, and right conduct during the 17th century, making a life-long practice of prudentia a necessity in “forming the Mind and settling good Habits,” as the publisher of yet another English edition of Orbis Pictus would advertise in 1728.

Moreover, Comenius’ text is itself a persuasive model of prudential reasoning and practice. It is framed as an invitational rhetoric.

Orbis Pictus commences with a formal Invitatio (chapter I) wherein “The Master” invites “the Boy” to join with him in a learning experience which partakes of divine wisdom:

[MASTER] Come, Boy, learn to be wise.

[BOY] What does this mean, to be wise?

[MASTER] To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.

[BOY] Who will teach me this?

[MASTER] I, by God’s help.

[BOY] How?

[MASTER] I will guide thee thorow all.
   I will show thee all.
   I will name thee all.

[BOY] See, here I am; lead me in the name of God.

[MASTER] Before all things, thou oughtest to learn the plain sounds, of which man’s speech consisteth; which living creatures know how to make, and thy Tongue knoweth how to imitate, and thy hand can picture out.
   Afterwards we will go into the World, and we will view all things.
   Here thou hast a lively and Vocal Alphabet.

Orbis Pictus concludes with a Clausula (chapter CLI) which reads in full:

   Thus thou hast seen in short, all things that can be shewed, and hast learned the chief Words of the English and Latin Tongue.
   Go on now and read other good Books diligently, and thou shalt become learned, wise, and godly.
   Remember these things; fear God, and call upon him, that he may bestow upon thee the Spirit of Wisdom.

With this close, we have moved beyond prudentia to the promise of phronesis (or what one colleague of mine has nicely translated as “wisdom of the heart”).

Throughout his book, Comenius yokes knowledge to the cumulative practical wisdom that comes from long experience taking part, ethically and reflectively, in the universal harmony of all being.

It was a theme that would resonate with scientists for several generations, many of whom believed, like Hooke, in the maxim

Nihil est in intellectu, quod non priùs fuit in sensu. Arist.

as proclaimed on the title page to Hoole’s first English translation of Orbis Pictus.

This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes various images of prudentia from the Renaissance and early modern period in the interest of recovering its iconographic tradition and early adaptation for a modern age.

TOPICS:  the allegorical use of the female form; the collective intellectual; early models of the social individual (vs. the bourgeois individual); the applicability of a neo-Aristotelian model (“predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people”) to modern societies with populations in the tens and hundreds of millions

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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