The fresco in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence “forms the ‘educational creed’ of [Mason’s] House of Education.” As such, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this fresco. Because it was so significant to Charlotte Mason, it is essential to explore how Mason applied it, so that we can properly interpret its role in Mason’s theory of education.
It is well known that the seven Liberal Arts are portrayed in this fresco. What is not as well known is that the fresco actually portrays fourteen branches of learning and knowledge under the Holy Spirit. In addition to the trivium and quadrivium, the fresco also portrays the seven “spiritual sciences.” John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence (quoted by Mason) identifies these seven additional sciences as follows:
1. Civil Law
2. Canon Law
3. Practical Theology
4. Contemplative Theology
5. Dogmatic Theology
6. Mystic Theology
7. Polemic Theology
It is important to note that these seven spiritual sciences are portrayed in exactly the same style and size as the seven “natural sciences” (the term Ruskin uses to refer to the seven Liberal Arts). All fourteen sciences are placed in the same row and are equally encompassed by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the two sets of sciences, except that the spiritual sciences are on the left (as one faces the fresco).
Mason was aware that fourteen arts were depicted. She explicitly noted “the seven spiritual … and the seven … natural sciences” in the fresco (II:269). If Mason’s endorsement of the fresco is taken as an endorsement of a particular model of curriculum structure, then that structure must include all fourteen arts, not just the seven natural sciences (liberal arts). It would need to include the seven spiritual sciences (civil law, canon law, mystic theology, and so on). But there is no evidence that Mason gave any consideration to the study of canon law (i.e., church or ecclesiastical law), mystic theology, etc. Mason did gave much consideration to the study of grammar, and grammar is part of the trivium. But we should not assume correlation means causality. The fresco offers insufficient evidence to conclude that Mason advocated a classical curriculum based on the seven liberal arts.
In Mason’s description of the fresco, she does indeed note that the fresco depicts “the seven Liberal Arts represented each by its captain figure.” Why does she single out the depiction of the seven Liberal Arts for special attention? Every one of the fourteen arts is depicted “with the figure of the Captain-teacher of each.” But each Captain-teacher of the spiritual sciences is a Christian, whereas each Captain-teacher of the Liberal Arts is a pagan. That is what amazed Mason about the fresco!
Mason wrote, “All of these seven [captain] figures [of the Liberal Arts] are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith” (II:271). Mason saw the fresco as confirmation of two important truths:
1. There is only one kind of knowledge. The fresco depicts the “spiritual sciences” and the “natural sciences” in the same way. Knowledge is not split into two spheres governed by two different sets of rules. Rather, “all knowledge (undebased) comes from above” (PR25:271, alluding to James 3:17). Mason writes that we should not “divide education into religious and secular” (II:270). There is only one kind of knowledge and one kind of education.
2. The Holy Spirit grants insight and learning to all people. Mason writes that “every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came” (II:271). All knowledge comes from above, and “is conveyed to minds which are, as Coleridge says, previously prepared to receive it; and, further, that it comes to a mind so prepared, without question as to whether it be the mind of pagan or Christian” (PR34:271). For Mason, this is “a truly liberal catholic idea, … corresponding marvellously with the facts of life” (PR34:271).
If one has preconceptions about how Mason applies the fresco, then one may attempt to find in the fresco a basis for the claim that Mason advocates a classical liberal arts education. But if one does so, then to be logically consistent one must also look to the left side of the fresco. If the trivium and the quadrivium are the heart of a Mason education, then so is canon law. On the other hand, if one looks at the entire fresco through Mason’s paradigm, one sees a dramatic illustration of the truth that all knowledge comes from God.