Tree Of Virtues And Tree Of Vices

A tree of virtues (arbor virtutum) is a diagram used in medieval Christian tradition to display the relationships between virtues, usually juxtaposed with a tree of vices (arbor vitiorum) where the vices are treated in a parallel fashion. Together with genealogical trees, these diagrams qualify as among the earliest explicit tree-diagrams in history, emerging in the High Middle Ages.[1]

At first appearing as illustrations in certain theological tracts, the concept becomes more popular in the Late Middle Ages and is also seen in courtly manuscripts such as the psalter of Robert de Lisle (c. 1310-1340).

Tree of Vices” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 25v Early 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian abbey of Himmerode, Germany. Tree of the cardinal vices each with their sub-vices; see also File:Speculum3.jpg, Speculum humanae salvationis, ca. 1330. The cardinal vices are: luxuria, ventris ingluvies, avaritia, tristicia, invidia, ira, vana gloria; “lust”, “gluttony” (gula as sub-vice), “avarice”, “dejection” (acedia as sub-vice), “envy”, “wrath”, “vanity”. luxuria gets twelve sub-vices, the other six get seven each. the root of the tree is superbia, holding the aureus calix babilon. The inscriptions ”fructus carnis : babilonia : sinistra : fructus iste descendit contrast with fructus spiritus : iherusalem : dextera : iste ascendit in the juxtaposed Tree of Virtues (f. 26r) The figure with crossed arms is labelled vetus adam, contrasting with novus adam.

Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r Early 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian abbey of Himmerode, Germany. Tree of the cardinal virtues each with their sub-virtues; the corresponding tree of vices is on the preceding page, File:Vices Speculum Virginum W72 25v.jpg. The seven cardinal virtues are caritas “love”, fides “faith”, spes “hope”, temperantia “temperance”, fortitudo “fortitude”, iusticia “justice” and prudentia “prudence”, with humilitas “humility” at the root of all. At the top of the tree is novus adam (Christ), contrasted with vetus adam in the tree of vices; the inscriptions fructus spiritus : iherusalem : dextera : [fructus] iste ascendit contrasts with the corresponding fructus carnis : babilonia : sinistra : fructus iste descendit in the tree of vices. Instead of the dragons, the tree of virtues has two angles flanking it, glossed with angeli pacis. At the bottom is the gloss hac itaque arboris ut fructuum dissimilitudine considera differentia.

The nodes of the tree-diagrams are the Cardinal Virtues and the Cardinal Vices, respectively, each with a number of secondary virtues or secondary vices shown as leaves of the respective nodes. While on a tree of virtues, the leaves point upward toward heaven, on a tree of vices the leaves point downward toward hell. At the root of the trees, the virtues of humilitas “humility” and the vice of superbia “pride” is shown as the origin of all other virtues and vices, respectively. By this time, the concept of showing hierarchical concepts of medieval philosophy in diagrams also becomes more widespread. E.g. ms. Arsenal 1037 (14th century) has a tree of virtue on fol. 4v and a tree of vices on fol. 5r as part of a collection of diagrams on a variety of topics.[2] In this example, the trees are also further subdivided into a ternary structure, as follows:

A Tree of twenty vices and twenty virtues
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

  • humilitas radix virtutum
    • I. prudentia (seven sub-virtues)
    • II. fortitudo (seven sub-virtues)
    • semita vitalis
      • III. iustitia (seven sub-virtues)
      • IIII. temperantia (seven sub-virtues)
      • fructus spiritus
        • V. fides (seven sub-virtues)
        • VI. spes (seven sub-virtues)
        • VII. caritas (seven sub-virtues)
  • superbia radix vitiorum
    • I. avaritia (seven sub-vices)
    • II. invidia (seven sub-vices)
    • semita mortis
      • III. inanis gloria (seven sub-vices)
      • IIII. ira (seven sub-vices)
      • fructus carnis
        • V. gula (seven sub-vices)
        • VI. acedia (seven sub-vices)
        • VII. luxuria (seven sub-vices)

In the Italian Renaissance, Pietro Bembo developed a similar flow-chart-like “moral schema” of sins punished in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory.[3]


  1. genealogical stemmata since at least the 11th century, the arbor virtutum since at least the 12th; see Nora Gädeke, Zeugnisse Bildlicher Darstellung Der Nachkommenschaft Heinrichs I, Arbeiten zur Frühmittelalterforschung 22 (1992), p. 2. For the possibility of a genealogiacal stemma of the early 10th century, see Nora Gädeke, Eine Karolingergenealogie des frühen 10. Jahrhunderts?, Francia 15 (1987), 778-792
  2. Septem hore canonice; Septem actus passionis Christi; Septem dona gratuita; Arbor virtutum; Arbor vicioru; Arbor sapientie; Duodecim prophete; Duodecim articuli fidei; Duodecim apostoli.
  3. in an early edition of Dante printed by Andrea Torresani (1451-1529), Venice 1515“Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2012-02-26.[1]“Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2012-05-05. Retrieved 2012-02-26.

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