Literature Theology

The Four Primordial Virtues

The creation of a code of moral conduct for the wise and virtuous man is one of the fundamental objectives of humanist literature.

The creation of a code of moral conduct for the wise and virtuous man is one of the fundamental objectives of humanist literature. This was the primary purpose of the production of emblems, and they were later transferred to architecture through sculpture, mural painting, gilt carving, as well as through tiles.

The figuration of the panel with the representation of the four cardinal virtues is one of the most remarkable cases of transferring this erudite context to the seventeenth-century tiles. As Alexandre Pais showed, for this composition, the iconographer used four emblems of the work Emblemas morales of Sebastián de Covarrubias, first published in 1610.

On the panel, in the middle of the sky, two palms are shown inside a crown, with the motto Negata Macrum, Donata Reducit Opimum taken from one of the epistles of the poet Horace. The phrase, which we can translate as “failure makes me lose weight, and winning a prize makes me fat”, recalls that the best ones prosper with recognition.

Four cardinal virtues
Four cardinal virtues, 1625-1650. Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Luísa Oliveira, 2011 © DGPC.

On the left, a cypress stands out in the middle of buildings, and the words Spem Vultu Simulat, a quote taken from Aeneid, of Virgil, state that the face of a wise man must always express hope, even if his heart is heavy. For this reason, who manages to hide his pain can be compared to the cypress, which remains green throughout the year, in winter or summer.

On the right, an obelisk casts shade over the ocean. The motto Immotae flectitur umbra let us perceive that it is immobile, even though its shadow moves. In the same way, the prudent man must be like a firm column. No matter what happens, his determination remains stable despite the changes of fortune.

These three thoughts seem to be the consideration of the ship’s captain, also represented in an emblem of Covarrubias. The verses in the work of the chaplain of Philip II of Spain teach the obligation to always be prudent, especially if the enemy forces are in large numbers:

When a single vessel has discovered/ By the armed enemy, turn the pricey one,/ And tries to take safe port/ Before it cost him dearly./ Only the escape has certainty/ Against the flesh, singular shelter/ The man diverging to the other extreme,/ Flee always from it, sailing and rowing.

Remo et Aura. Sebastián de Covarrubias
Remo et Aura. Sebastián de Covarrubias – Emblemas morales, 1610 © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Created to lecture a Christian morality, the four emblems can be related to the four cardinal virtues. The pilot’s care in the battle against carnal pleasures is Prudence, the immobility of the obelisk is Fortress, the serenity of the cypress is Temperance, and the recognition of virtues, Justice.

It is noteworthy that the difference between the palm with fruits and the dry one of the emblem’s picture was adapted through the opposition between the green color of the winner and the yellow one, to represent the defeated palm that dries up.

Often the four cardinal virtues were associated with programs for the exaltation of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and it was likely that the panel belonged to a wider set of decorations in the main chapel of a church.


MONTEIRO, João Pedro (ed.). Um gosto português. O uso do azulejo no século XVII. Lisboa: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Athena, 2012. ISBN 978-989-31-0030-1.

Lisbon, Museu Nacional do Azulejo

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