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The Liberal Arts Casket

  • Object:

    The Liberal Arts Casket

  • Place of origin:

    England (probably, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1190-1200 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Copper plaques, hammered, champlevé, engraved, punched, enamelled, soldered together and gilded

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 9 []

This casket depicts personifications of the Liberal Arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry and Music) along with Nature and Philosophy. The Liberal Arts were focal elements of learning from the 11th century in the Cathedral Schools, through to the early Universities of the 13th century.

Personifications of the Liberal Arts were depicted thoughout the Medieval period using fairly standard devices. This casket however, is unique in its methods of representation. For example Rhetoric, usually depicted as a woman (the Latin retorica is feminine), is here shown as a man. He holds scales as a symbol of his art, a symbol more commonly associated with the Cardinal Virtue, Justice.

This object displays great technical skill. The artist has used translucent and speckled glasses with a wide range of mixed enamels. The vividness and movement in the depiction of the characters is considered by some to be an expression of Gothic naturalism at its height.

Physical description

The Liberal Arts Casket, in the form of a rectangular box with hipped roof and decorated with champlevé enamel depicting the Liberal Arts with 'Philosophia' (Philosophy) and 'Natura' (Nature). The casket is constructed of many copper plaques. It has a raised lid with a clasp, which was originally on two hinges. A suspension ring (not original) is fixed in the centre of the lid.

The roof is decorated with geometric floral patterns amid trefoils and quatrefoils. The sides of the casket have six medallions depicting personifications of the seven Liberal Arts, Philosophy and Nature. The borders of each medallion contain Latin rubrics that identify each personification.

On the front of the casket sits 'Grammatica' (Grammar). She holds a switch and her pupil, sitting to her left, holds a parchment. To the right are 'Rhetorica' (Rhetoric) holding scales and 'Musica' (Music) playing a psaltery.

The back of the casket depicts 'Aristmatica' (Arithmetic), who peers at a board and 'Geometria' (Geometry) who holds a pair of compasses. To their right 'Astronomia' (Astronomy) holds up an astrolabe with his back to the viewer and next to him 'Dialectica' (Dialectic) points to the right, an arrow emerging from her mouth.

The side panels show Philosophia seated and wearing a crown. She holds a sceptre and disc. On the other side Natura bares her breast to suckle 'Scientia' (Knowledge) who kneels beside her.

Place of Origin

England (probably, made)


ca. 1190-1200 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Copper plaques, hammered, champlevé, engraved, punched, enamelled, soldered together and gilded

Marks and inscriptions












Height: 6.9 cm, Width: 10.4 cm, Depth: 6 cm including lock, Weight: 0.48 kg

Object history note

Provenance: Soltikoff sale, Paris, 8 April 1861, lot 92, bought by Webb.

Historical significance: Medieval interest in the liberal arts stemmed from the late Roman Authors. The Philosopher Boethius (480-524) divided the seven arts into two stages of learning; the trivium, (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music). These stages were emphasised in the court of Charlemagne and became focal elements of learning from the 11th century Cathedral Schools through to the early universities of the 13th century.

The Liberal Arts were frequently depicted throughout the Middle Ages using fairly standard forms of representation. This casket however, has several unique and unusual aspects. Rhetoric, usually depicted as a woman (the Latin retorica is feminine), is here shown as a man. He also holds scales as a symbol of his art, a prop more commonly associated with the cardinal virtue, Justice. The arrow protruding out of Dialectic's mouth and the pose of Astronomy (his back turned to the viewer) are images with no other parallel in the Middle Ages. The depiction of Nature suckling Knowledge is also unique to this object.The unusual iconography of this piece leads us to question the meaning and purpose of the images. Images were often used in the medieval period as a substitute to text, as a visual reminder, or as an aid to the understanding of text. Images were thus depicted in a standard way to aid the viewer in his or her understanding. This casket however, challenges the conventional nature of medieval imagery. It is unclear whether the medieval viewer was able to use these images to interpret the inscriptions or, in contrast to medieval convention, he needed the inscriptions to interpret the images. The unparalleled representations upon this casket certainly suggest a very distinctive and personal commission.

The techincal skill of this object is unusual. The artist has used translucent and speckled glasses with a wide range of mixed enamels. The depiction of the characters is vivid and free, and considered by some to exemplify the full development of naturalism towards the end of the century.

Historical context note

This object may once have held the writing materials of a scholar at court. The craftsmanship of the piece indicates that it belonged to a wealthy owner, whilst the inscriptions and subject matter suggest that it belonged to an educated member of society.

The depiction of Philosophy crowned on this casket suggests that the Liberal Arts were believed to assist the study of Philosophy. The representation of Nature suckling Knowledge is unique and cannot be paralleled in manuscripts or in other media. It may indicate the origins of knowledge and understanding. The casket seems to represent the stages of learning from infancy (when Nature gives birth to Knowledge), through the structured education of the seven liberal arts, culminating in the pinnacle of intellectual knowledge: philosophical understanding.

Descriptive line

The Liberal Arts Casket, of copper plaques decorated with champlevé enamel (much lost), England, ca. 1190-1200

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Campbell, Marian, An Introduction to Medieval Enamels, London: HMSO, 1983, p. 28, pl. 21
M.Evans, "Allegorical Women and Practical Men: The Iconography of the 'Artes' Reconsidered", in Medieval Women, ed. Baker, Studies in Church History, Susidia I, 1978
E. Taburet-Delahaye, L'Orfèvrerie Gothique Au Musée du Cluny, Paris, 1989, pp.78-80
M. Chamot, English Medieval Enamels, 1930, pp. 33-4
P. Lasko, Ars Sacra 800-1200, Penguin Books, 1972, p.239
M.Gauthier, Emaux du Moyen Age Occidental, Office du Livre, 1972, pp. 13-14
English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Zarnecki, G. et al (eds.), London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984, cat.no.287, pp.270-1
Cleaver, Laura. The liberal arts in sculpture and metalwork in twelfth-century France and ideals of education. Immediations. Spring 2007, vol.4
Objets d'art et de haute curiosité composant la célèbre collection du Prince Soltykoff. Catalogue of the auction held at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 8 - May 1 1861.
Jones, Alexandra. Catalogue entry 'Kästchen mit Darstellung der Freien Künste (Artes Liberales)'. In: Richard Löwenherz. König, Ritter Gefangener, ed. Alexander Schubert. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, 17 September 2017 - 15 April 2018. Regensburg: Historisches Museum / Schnell und Steiner, 2017. ISBN 9783795431655
Zarnecki, G. et al (eds.), English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984
Kemper, Dorothee. 'Bermerkungen zu den Kölner Blaugold-Emails des Nikolaus von Verdun'. In: Opus - Festschrift für Rainer Kahsnitz, ed. Wolfgang Augustyn, 3 vols, vol. 1, part 3. Berlin: Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft, 2019. ISBN 9783871572456.

Labels and date

Champlevé enamel, partly translucent on copper gilt. On the front and back emblematic figures of the seven Liberal Arts; on the ends, Philosophy enthroned and Natural Science.
English; late 12th century []


Copper alloy; Enamel


Hammering; Engraved; Punched; Enamelled; Soldered; Gilded; Champlevé

Subjects depicted

Astronomy; Geometry; Dialectic; Rhetoric; Knowledge; Music; Philosophy; Arithmetic


Enamels; Metalwork


Metalwork Collection

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