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My students rarely know what kindness really means. When they provide feedback on their classmates’ papers, for instance, they think kindness means happy faces and exclamation marks, and a “Great Job!” written at the end. And they often think people like me, who offer them substantial critiques to help make their writing better, are simply mean. Consequently, every semester now includes a day where we define kindness. Kindness does not offer false praise but possesses the courage to help someone identify where they might improve. Unlike flattery, kindness does not mistake temporary good feelings for long-term good.

Kindness is not the only virtue we easily misconstrue. Even—or perhaps especially—the virtues we hear the most often and think we value the most—such as love, wisdom, hope, courage, or justice—are those we are least able to define precisely. And, as my students demonstrated, if we misunderstand what these virtues mean, we are likely to misunderstand how to live them.

Consider the intense debate around the virtue of justice. From “social justice warriors” to “one-issue-voters,” Christians on both sides of the political spectrum care deeply about justice. Rather than unite Christians, however, their shared interest tends to divide them. In fact, so many of the pressing issues dividing Christians—from abortion to LGBTQ+ rights to immigration—are rooted in different understandings and applications of words like justice and love.

But for much of Christian history, words like justice and love weren’t loosely defined concepts, but a person. They could see Justice. They recognized Love. In fact, they could look both of them in the eyes.

Remembering the Lady Virtues

For most of Christian history, virtue formation was a central component of education. This formational process was not just intellectual. Learning about the virtues was an important first step, but becoming virtuous was the ultimate aim of this education. Clement of Alexandria explained that a tutor’s role is “not to educate nor give information but to train someone in the virtuous life.”1 Moral education, then, was less a matter of what was universally right or wrong and more about becoming a certain kind of person. Formation means living into, becoming like—and thus it is a transformative process.

Virtue education could not be accomplished with lists and theories; the virtues had to move beyond the brain and be impressed into the body. Ancient and medieval Christians recognized that to embody virtue, it helps to start with … bodies. Virtues such as wisdom, hope, and courage were personified and took on the form of women. These lady virtues pop up in tapestries, frescoes, paintings, church doors, and stained-glass windows. Sculptures of them stand beside tombs, hover in church nooks, and adorn civic squares.

Notre-Dame de Strasbourg (1015-1439) – Left Portal – Depiction of the Infancy of Christ – Fisheye panorama showing the allegories of virtue (a female carrying a spear) and vice (a female carrying a rod) [photo links to source]

The lady virtues used to be some of the most recognized women in Christendom. But while those of us in Christian universities may regularly invoke the names of the virtues, we have largely forgotten what they look like. We are familiar with some of their cousins, such as Lady Liberty, whose torch acts as a symbolic beacon for those she welcomes to the American shoreline. But we would probably have a hard time recognizing the faces of Love, Justice, or Wisdom. Consequently, we might not be on as intimate of terms with them as we might think.

Developing virtues like wisdom, faith, and justice may be in our university mottos and strategic plans, but without concrete, tangible examples and models, the virtues can seem like vague impossibilities: challenging to identify and even more difficult to put into practice. And no matter how well-versed we may become in the finer points of virtue theory, living virtuously requires translating a virtue from the page to a person. And for transforming an abstract concept into a concrete, physical body we can see and imitate, we need the imagination. The Christian imagination has bequeathed us a wealth of personifications of the virtues that provide us with the very kinds of concrete, physical models that allow us to see, imitate, and expand upon the virtues.

The Art of Fashioning the Soul

Historic Christians understood that to become Christ-like in character requires a distinctive Christian imagination. They compared the soul to wax, in that it took on the shape of what was impressed upon it. Two linguistic relationships reflect this relationship between imagination and formation. The origin of our word for character is kharaktēr, the Greek name for a coin-stamping tool that impresses a specific image onto the metal. The image gave the metal not only a form but a purpose and a particular identity.

Imagination, on the other hand, shares a Latin root with imitation. Art has an inherently mimetic quality so that just as a child copies the image and example of a beloved parent, we imitate and become like the stories and images that capture our attention. We never really change all that much from being like children dressing up as their favorite characters, to “putting on” an identity that imitates what we pay attention to and love.

Wax is neutral, in that it can take on any image impressed upon it. To form the soul into something good, something that resembles Christ, requires impressing good images upon it. Forming one’s character by selecting and actively imprinting Christ-like images upon the wax tablet of the soul became a practice called the art of fashioning the soul.2

The art of fashioning the soul uses creative, outward forms to help us form and order our inward realities. Hugh of St. Victor explained that the “eye shall see outwardly, so that your soul may be fashioned to its likeness inwardly.”3 These external images may be “pleasant to behold,” but their purpose is to “adorn your soul” so that “from them you may learn wisdom, instruction, and virtue.” The outward forms act as an architecture for the soul, and Hugh instructed that whoever wishes to “cultivate the virtues, must with the assistance of God’s grace erect within himself a building of virtues.”4 Seeing an outward form of a virtue not only teaches us about the virtue but also imprints the form of the virtue in the heart, therefore helping to build the necessary desires and dispositions to become more virtuous.

Put simply, what we behold, we become.

The art of fashioning the soul is, itself, an art. Conceptualizing the soul as a kind of wax to be formed makes fashioning it somewhat like molding a sculpture and arranging a mosaic, and thus it is a work of both creativity and beauty. While impressing an image is a receptive act akin to a seal impressing hot wax, choosing the seals, ordering them, and showing them the necessary quality of attention to impress them requires creative, active engagement.

Learning this art resembles an apprenticeship. An apprentice learns not only by studying but by imitating someone’s skills through practice. When I was learning how to shoot a basketball, for instance, I watched how experienced players shot. I then tried to imitate their form, copying their feet, their hand placement, their follow-through, etc. And then I spent a whole lot of time training my body. With and without a ball, I would extend my arm and flick my wrist so that the proper form felt automatic.

The same basic idea of models and practice applies to virtue formation. It would be more difficult to read a book about how to play basketball than to see someone play it, and virtues, too, are easier to imitate when they are embodied. No matter how well-versed we may become in the finer points of virtue theory, living virtuously requires translating a virtue from the page to a person. A virtue is something we are meant not only to know but to live. Art helps them come alive. It transforms an abstract concept into a concrete, physical body we can see and imitate.

Definitions can be easy to forget, so giving virtues a face, and a series of odd accessories, such as snakes, second faces, and sheathed swords, immediately makes them more memorable. We remember through images, especially those that are striking or strange. A personification’s odd accessories—its iconography—act as a visual definition for each virtue, and thus help us remember what goodness looks like.

But the act of becoming—i.e., the process of character formation—requires not only knowing what is good but also activating the spirit so that the heart wants to choose the good. The art of fashioning the soul helps to unify the spirit with the mind. A personification defines a virtue to help whoever is looking at it better remember it and its beauty and strangeness stir the heart and rouse the spirit, inspiring a desire to imitate what one sees.

In part two, we’ll meet one of these lady virtues and gaze upon Lady Prudence. Beholding her strange double face and magical mirror will, I hope, not only show us what it means to be prudent but will also inspire us to become more like her.

This blog post is adapted from Becoming by Beholding: The Formative Power of the Imagination.


  1. Clement of Alexandria, qtd. in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 268.
  2. I first read the phrase “fashioning the soul” in Carruthers and Ziolkowski’s introduction to the art of memoria, which describes the ancient and medieval practice of engaging the imagination to develop one’s memory. Imagination and memory are linked in classical and medieval understandings of the soul, since they knew that what captured the imagination would be more likely to be remembered (and would therefore become imprinted on the soul). Mary Carruthers and Jan M. Ziolkowski, The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 28.
  3. Hugh of Saint-Victor, Hugh of Saint-Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings, 1.7, trans. by a Religious of C.S.M.V, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock 2009), p. 52.
  4. Hugh of Saint-Victor, Selected Spiritual Writings, 1.18, p. 78

Lanta Davis

Indiana Wesleyan University
Lanta Davis is Professor of Humanities and Literature for the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University.