Grammar and gardening

From Jack Hoeksema recently, a note about this 1650 painting in the National Gallery (London), “Allegory of Grammar”, by Laurent de La Hyre:

(#1) A young woman watering plants / Grammar, the first of the Seven Liberal Arts, personified, nurturing young minds

[A note on images. Jack originally posted a photo he’d taken of the painting in the National Gallery, but it had poor resolution, and the museum label next to it was completely illegible. So I looked for better-quality images on-line. All the good ones appear to be owned by stock-photo companies; here’s an excellent one, reproduced without fee.]

From the National Gallery site:

This painting is one of a series depicting the Seven Liberal Arts, which represent disciplines associated with learning and language – grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy – as half-length figures of women. Grammar is shown as a woman watering plants, conveying the idea that young minds need encouragement to develop and grow. The Latin inscription on the scroll can be translated as ‘A meaningful and literate word spoken in the correct manner’.

La Hyre’s figure [call her Grammaria] imitates classical sculpture: her drapery appears solid and is arranged in crisp, overlapping folds. Further references to the classical age can be seen in the column and ornate urn.

La Hyre was probably inspired by Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, an illustrated dictionary in which ideas were represented through images of people. The French edition was published in 1644, about five years before the artist began his series.

And from this site on the artist:

Laurent de La Hyre (1606-56) … was the son of the painter Etienne de La Hyre. He was born in Paris. He was influenced first by Primaticcio’s work at Fontainebleau, then by Caravaggism before adopting in his later years the lighter palette and more serene style which marks much of French painting around 1640-60.

He became a member of the Academy in 1648. He undertook decorative schemes for Paris town-houses, tapestry designs and altarpieces for Parisian churches. He also painted a number of landscapes.

As both a gardener and a grammarian, I appreciate the image, though I’m a bit edgy about the grammarian part. The idea is that both are occupations devoted to nurturing and fashioning the very best — in gardens and in grammars.

Now there are people who observe, study, and analyze growing plants (as amateur enthusiasts or as professional botanists); there are practical gardeners, who cultivate plants, help them to grow and arrange them in pleasing settings or harvest useful products from them; there are scholars of gardening (botanists of a somewhat different bent), who study the practices of gardening; and there are gardening advice-givers, who recommend what they believe to be best practices. I’m a strictly amateur botanist, a practical gardener, a very amateur scholar of gardening practice, and (rather diffidently) an occasional provider of gardening advice — but, primarily, a practical gardener.

Like Grammaria, above.

And there are people who observe, study, and analyze languages as they are used (as amateur enthusiasts or as professional linguists); there are users of language, who arrange speech and writing in ways that are pleasing or useful; there are scholars of language use (linguists of a somewhat different bent), who study these practices; and there are language advice-givers, who recommend what they believe to be best practices. In this story, I am of course a language user, and occasionally I’m called upon to provide advice (as a writing teacher or a critic of student writing, as a copy-editor), but, primarily, I’m a linguist (of both types).

Unlike Grammaria, who’s solidly an advice-giver (to the young), apparently providing encouraging advice in the painting above, but much sterner instruction in some other representations, for instance as sculpted on a door of Chartres Cathedral. There she’s wielding a rod to threaten two young children who are writing, with the figures of the famous Latin grammarians Donatus and Priscian standing beside her.

Grammar on the door.  From “The Seven Liberal Arts and the West Door of Chartres Cathedral” by Titus Burckhardt, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1969):


According to the medieval theologians the Virgin Mary, by virtue of the innate perfection of her soul, possessed all the wisdom of which man is capable. A direct reference to this wisdom is to be found in the allegories of the seven liberal arts which, just outside an inner circle of adoring angels, decorate the tympanum of the Door of the Virgin. In the medieval context the seven sciences — which were classified as the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy — were not exclusively empirical sciences, as are those we know today. They were the expression of so many faculties of the soul, faculties demanding harmonious development. This is why they were also called arts.

Following ancient tradition, Dante, in his “Convivio”, compares the seven liberal arts to the seven planets, grammar corresponding to the moon, logic to Mercury, rhetoric to Venus, arithmetic to the sun, music to Mars, geometry to Jupiter, and astronomy to Saturn. The creators of the Royal Door of Chartres were certainly aware of this correspondence.


… the trivium was a schooling both in language and in thought. It is language which makes man man; and this is why grammar comes at the beginning. Not without humour, the sculptor of the Door of the Virgin has portrayed this art as a woman threatening with a rod two young children who are writing. The figures of the famous grammarians Donat and Priscian stand beside her. Dialectic, whose feminine representation in Chartres carries a scorpion and has Aristotle as a companion, is none other than logic. Rhetoric is the art of speaking, or rather, speaking in so far as it is an art; Cicero accompanies its allegorical figure.

The four members of the quadrivium are likewise represented in a feminine form in Chartres. They are: arithmetic with a reckoning board, music with a glockenspiel, geometry with a drawing-board, and astronomy, contemplating the heavens and accompanied by Boethius, Pythagoras, Euclid and Ptolemy. These four arts or sciences refer to the four conditions of corporeal existence: number, time, space and motion.

The grammar that Grammaria commands is of course the grammar of the best writings and speeches in Latin (and Greek); she is the fount of grammatical prescription in the Western tradition.

Donatus and Priscian. Very briefly on Grammaria’s companions in the Chartres sculptures.

Aelius Donatus (fl. mid-fourth century AD) was a Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric. St. Jerome states in Contra Rufinum 1.16 that Donatus was his tutor. (Wikipedia link)

Priscianus Caesariensis (fl. ad 500), commonly known as Priscian, was a Latin grammarian and the author of the Institutes of Grammar which was the standard textbook for the study of Latin during the Middle Ages. (Wikipedia link)

Patron saints. The closest thing to a patron saint of grammarians would appear to be St. Jerome / Hieronymus (see under Donatus, just above). From Wikipedia:

Jerome (Latin: Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus; Greek: Εὐσέβιος Σωφρόνιος Ἱερώνυμος; c. 347 – 30 September 420) was a Latin Catholic priest, confessor, theologian, and historian, commonly known as Saint Jerome. He was born at Stridon, a village near Emona on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia. He is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin (the translation that became known as the Vulgate), and his commentaries on the Gospels.

Jerome is celebrated as the patron saint of students, translators, and librarians, and his feast day is 30 September.

For a patron saint of gardening, there are several choices, but St. Fiacre is usually named first. From Wikipedia:

Saint Fiacre (Irish: Fiachra, Latin: Fiacrius) is the name of three different Irish saints, the most famous of which is Saint Fiacre of Breuil (circa AD 600 – 18 August 670), the Catholic priest, abbot, hermit, and gardener of the seventh century who was famous for his sanctity and skill in curing infirmities. He emigrated from his native Ireland to France, where he constructed for himself a hermitage together with a vegetable and herb garden, oratory, and hospice for travelers.

…  He is the patron of growers of vegetables and medicinal plants, and gardeners in general, including ploughboys. [

Englebert’s Lives of the Saints lists 30 August as his feast day. [Englebert’s Lives of the Saints lists 30 August as his feast day; other sources have 1, 11, 18, or 31 August or 1 September instead.]

…  From about 1650, the Hotel de Saint Fiacre, in the rue St-Martin in Paris, hired out carriages. These carriages came to be known as fiacres, which became a generic term for hired horse-drawn transport. Although sometimes claimed by taxi-drivers as a patron saint, St. Fiacre is not recognized as such by the Church.

The usage was well attested in English as well as French. From NOAD:

noun fiacre historical a small four-wheeled carriage for public hire.

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