Saint Basil and His Bees in Orvieto

~ by Dr. John Skillen ~

What is the Christian mind to make of the rich and sophisticated heritage of classical thought, literature, and culture, a heritage so full of useful tools of learning, so astute in its exploration and analysis of nature and history, of the human psyche and the polis, of human artistic endeavors . . . and yet falling short of a wisdom unto salvation? (As Augustine observed in Confessions, book 7, he found in “certain books of the Platonists” the notion of a “Word that was with God . . . through whom all things were made” but that “‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’—I found this nowhere there.”)

Every classical Christian school or homeschool co-op typically enacts a response to the enduring rhetorical question posed memorably by Tertullian around the year 200: “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy?” To put the question another way, on what terms have educated Christians over the centuries allowed the classical and the Christian—the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian intellectual heritages—to integrate in the same classroom?

One analogy an early theologian came up with to guide us as we sort through and transform, where possible, the best of classical cultural heritage is Saint Basil’s metaphor of the honeybees, developed in his letter “to adolescents on the right use of Greek literature”:

For just as the bees possess the power to get honey from the flowers . . . so it is possible for those who are pursuing not merely what is sweet and pleasant in such writings to store away from them some benefit also for their souls. It is, therefore, in accordance of the whole similitude of the bees, that we should participate in the pagan literature. For these [bees] neither approach all flowers equally, nor in truth do they attempt to carry off entire those upon which they alight, but taking only so much of them as is suitable for their work, they suffer the rest to go untouched. We ourselves too, if we are wise, having appropriated from this literature what is suitable to us and akin to the truth, will pass over the remainder. And just as in plucking the blooms of a rose-bed we avoid the thorns, so also in garnering from such writings whatever is useful, let us guard ourselves against what is harmful. (italics added)

In fact, Basil’s bees serve as a guiding thread for the two scholé-centered summer programs in Orvieto (Italy) that Dr. Christopher Perrin and I created a few years ago for the classical Christian education community. We make leisurely and repeated visits to the transept chapel of the Orvieto Duomo to see Basil’s metaphor at work in the all-encompassing visual-literary program of the San Brizio Chapel. Back at the monastery, we gather in the library-classroom to discuss how Basil’s bees might guide not only our appropriation of classical heritage but also our discerning of the good from the bad in the literature and culture of our own time.

One could hardly ask for a richer prompt for Tertullian’s question than the Duomo’s magnificent fresco cycle concerning the End Times, the Last Things, and the Last Judgment. Covering every square inch of the Chapel of San Brizio, this monumental program was begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli in the early 1500s. In the decorative lower zone, trompe l’oeil windows frame great figures of classical thought and literature (with Dante included in the company) surrounded by scenes from their writings. These scenes present analogies, partial anticipations, and shadowy types of the scenes of Christian eschatology unfolding in the enormous murals above them.

Below the mural of luridly colored guardian demons herding the damned souls into hell’s mouth are the figures of Ovid and Virgil, with the various descents to the underworld found in their writings. Illustrated in the rondels around Virgil are Hercules rescuing Theseus, and Aeneas holding the golden bough that serves as his round-trip ticket. Double space is given to the story of Orpheus’s unsuccessful mission into Hades to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, untimely dead from the bite of a poisonous snake.

Virgil’s extended account of the Orpheus and Eurydice story occurs—of all places—in the Georgics, a sort of encyclopedic farmer’s almanac whose annotations draw on all human learning, cosmology, and mythology. The topic of book 4 is beekeeping. There, in the context of the perils that threaten bees, Virgil narrates at great length the story of Aristaeus the shepherd, who “lost his bees, through disease and hunger.”

In addition to our leisurely visits to the Duomo, we also make an afternoon’s visit to the country villa of our beekeeper friend, who gives us a hands-on lesson in apiculture. We visit the monastery of the Olivetan Benedictines, tucked away in the stunning agricultural landscape of southern Tuscany, where the monastic tradition of beekeeping is alive and well. We buy jars of honey labeled with the particular pollens that went into their making and the particular ailments they can relieve. We read a lengthy essay in the New York Times about the underappreciated importance of bees for the agriculture of our day, and of the mounting threats to their survival. In other words, we try to reactivate in our own experience some of the resonances that Basil’s metaphor would have carried during a long period of history.

In Orvieto we enjoy two weeks of undistracted leisurely attention—scholé—to become a hive of Basil’s bees, creating rich honey from pollen selectively gathered from reading classic texts in philosophy and theology as well as literary classics, sitting under masterworks of visual art (not in museums but in the places where the artists did their work), traipsing through fields and vineyards and olive groves, and, equally important, digesting all these experiences in conversation over leisurely meals served by Chef Maria.

This is, I admit, a bit of advertising for our summer programs. But it is also an encouragement in crafting a seamlessly integrated course of study—as so many classical-curriculum schools, co-ops, and homeschool parents already do. We must not neglect the entire body as a collector of pollen. Saint Basil may have given us more insight into the nectar we can gather than first meets the eye. With the earthy metaphor of the bee, should we not also consider how the natural world may offer us treasure even as our classical heritage does?

Bodily experience strengthens the synapses of memory (as the Classical Academic Press approach to chanting Latin vocabulary demonstrates). Orvieto provides a fruitful setting for learning because it is rich both with textures (far more wood and stone than plastic) and with odors (of ripe fruit, flowering jasmine, coffee, cooking). The proportion of things worth looking at outweighs the distracting eye candy of our commercialized culture. There’s no din of noise: One can hear the birds and listen to the church bells. Can we pay more attention to creating such an environment on our own campuses?

Perhaps I’m tempting us not just to read about the bees, but to create an apiary along the edge of the field behind the school, to landscape the grounds with herbs and flowers attractive to the bees. I confess to daydreaming that we might recover the trivium arts of thought and language that go hand in hand with recovering earth care, with knowing how to keep bees and make fruit preserves and raise chickens, with predicting the weather by smelling the air (instead of checking an app), with learning the grammar of bird songs, the logic of proportions in sustaining the earth while dining on its bounty, and the rhetoric of formal gardens.

In our Orvieto summer programs, the student is indeed one of Basil’s bees, leisurely harvesting to produce its honey both what is suitable from classical culture and what is beautiful and useful from that which surrounds us here and now. This serves as an illustration of how the classical Christian education movement is uniquely situated to enact such a recovery of human being—of being human.

Dr. John Skillen (PhD, Duke University) directs the Studio for Art, Faith and History while serving as a senior advisor in Gordon College’s Global Education Office. He was the medieval and Renaissance literature specialist in Gordon’s English department for many years before starting the semester program in Orvieto in 1998, serving as its director until 2009. The program has hosted more than 600 students from 25 institutions. Dr. Skillen established the Studio for Art, Faith and History to develop special projects that offer creative contemporary responses to pre-modern traditions in the visual and performing arts, and to develop educational programs for high school students, graduate students, and adult learners. Dr. Skillen is a resident professor with the annual Classical Academic Press Orvieto trip.

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