Primary Source

Theophilus, On Diverse Arts (De diversis artibus), c. 1120


Theophilus’ De diversis artibus is the only complete treatise on art to survive from the High Middle Ages. Written under the pseudonym Theophilus, who seems to have been a Benedictine monk of the early twelfth century, it describes techniques of painting, stained glass, and metalwork, introducing each with a prologue deep in religious significance. Treasured for its rarity, the book also provides a unique look at the kinds of values that medieval viewers and makers sought in their art objects. The excerpt reproduced here introduces the tract and describes the worldly variety of techniques that Theophilus will address.


Book one, prologue
THEOPHILUS humble priest, servant of the servants of God, unworthy of the name and profession of monk wishes to all, who are willing to avoid and spurn idleness and the shiftlessness of the mind by the useful occupation of their hands and the agreeable contemplation of new things, the recompense of a heavenly reward!

In the account of the creation of the world, we read that man was created in the image and likeness of God and was animated by the Divine breath, breathed into him. By the eminence of such distinction, he was placed above the other living creatures, so that, capable of reason, he acquired participation in the wisdom and skill of the Divine Intelligence, and, endowed with free will, was subject only to the will of his Creator, and revered His sovereignty. Wretchedly deceived by the guile of the Devil, through the sin of disobedience he lost the privilege of immortality, but, however, so far transmitted to later posterity the distinction of wisdom and intelligence, that whoever will contribute both care and concern is able to attain a capacity for all arts and skills, as if by hereditary right.
Wherefore, dearest son,whom God has made wholly happy in this regard, in so far as those things are offered freely, for which many at the greatest peril of life plough the sea waves compelled to endure hunger and cold, or which others, wearied with long servitude in the schools and not exhausted by the desire of learning, only acquire with intolerable labourbe eager and anxious to look at this little work on the various arts, read it through with a retentive memory, and cherish it with a warm affection. If you will diligently examine it, you will find in it whatever kinds and blends of various colours Greece possesses: whatever Russia knows of workmanship in enamels or variety of niello: whatever Arabia adorns with repousse or cast work, or engravings in relief: whatever gold embellishments Italy applies to various vessels or to the carving of gems and ivories: whatever France esteems in her precious variety of windows: whatever skilled Germany praises in subtle work in gold, silver, copper, iron, wood and stone.


Heidi Catherine Gearhart is Assistant Professor of Art History at George Mason University. Gearhart specializes in the art of Medieval Europe. Her research focuses on sacred arts and manuscripts, artists, and medieval art theory, and she is especially interested in issues of memory, craft, and manufacture.

How to Cite This Source

"Theophilus, On Diverse Arts (De diversis artibus), c. 1120," in World History Commons, [accessed January 18, 2022]