Tarot finds its expression in various settings: divinatory; meditative; and as artistic expression. Each of these three areas may have a numinous quality in either its development or its interpretation. Four examples are presented reflecting four ways in which the numinous is touched: in meditative practice using a similar form to the traditional Christian Lectio Divina; as alternate state of consciousness by transcending bodily suffering; in recognition of the expressive Will of the Divine; and as direct experience of immanence.
Part of Dante’s letter to Can Grande, in which he talks of his Divine Comedy, could be said of tarot:
For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: “When Israel went out of Egypt, …, Judea was made his sanctuary” (Douay-Rheims, Ps. 113.1-2). If we look at it from the letter alone it means the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taken of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical…
[Para. 7. The epistle (or letter) talks of his Divine Comedy. My emphasis of the key terms.]
To speak of tarot, or to use tarot, requires that we similarly address not only each part, but any whole, in polysemantic ways.
I state in the abstract that I shall give four examples in which the numimous is touched and imply that these will reflect three ways in which tarot is used. The three ways are tarot’s usage for divination; its use for meditation – in the broader senses of the term; and its artistic expression. The four examples I had in mind when writing the abstract – and this is the danger of writing an abstract prior to putting pen to paper – due to available time, I have reduced to three – namely the cards commonly titled, in the ‘Marseille’-type decks, the Papesse; the ‘Maison Dieu’; and the World. For those interested, I had intended the fourth examplar to have been the pain experienced and transcended by the Hanged Man (Le Pendu).
For the sake of those amongst us who have limited knowledge of tarot, let’s briefly – and perhaps only too briefly – peruse their whole sequence before turning to those three. For our purposes, I use the earliest extent Marseille-type deck: the 1650 Noblet from Paris.
[The sequence can be perused at leisure on my main fourhares site.]
II – PAPESSE: Listening with the heart – Lectio Divina
Looking at the card
If we begin by looking carefully at what is presented to us in the image, a number of both obvious and not so obvious details emerge.
Firstly, it is a woman, presented to us in a seated position. Behind her are draperies and she appears dressed in rather numerous layers. There is an implication that the weather is perhaps not so clement as may otherwise be assumed: it is cold, yet she is well dressed and warm.
She appears to be seated indoors, perhaps, as was the custom, near a window in order to maximise the light entering when either reading or otherwise engaged in dexterous manual activity.
She is triple crowned, on her lap is what appears to be a book, and at her feet some difficult to distinguish form or item.
Her gaze is level with her head, towards her right.
She appears to have her right hand below the book, and her left allowing the book to rest casually within its relaxed clutch, or her index stopped at the last word upon which her eyes rested.
This is what we may call our own first stage of careful observation, detailing, and with each renewed perusal further detailing, the literal forms inherent in the given image. This, it must be mentioned, has its own risks: by returning to the very same image time and again, we may become locked into its peculiar details, and take its instance as determining the very form the image ‘ought’ to have – kind of like developing a dogma towards a specific deck rather than taking steps towards understanding the image, with the current card as unique examplar.
At this first stage, a movement towards developing an appreciation and, importantly, a comparison to other images from the period affords us with likely intent of design as well and provides us with clarification for details that may otherwise remain obscure.
Let’s add a couple of other images to our Papesse, one from some sixty years later, and another from the 15th century: the Dodal and the Visconti-Sforza respectively.
Firstly the Dodal from Lyons from circa 1701.
With this card we observe that its form is basically the same as the Noblet, except that we can see a little more detail towards the bottom of the card.
In fact, other similar cards from the period are quite consistent, and whether or not earlier models included this detail, within the established canon of the TdM – or ‘Marseille’, though note that none of these designs stem from Marseille – this detail is consistent, and at times looks ever so much like a wheel.
Perhaps, just perhaps, what we have is a spinning wheel from which she is weaving. In this case, it is may be no book, but perhaps a weaving-frame or loom, with her right-hand underneath passing threads.
I mention this not as conclusion, but rather to show one step in the discovery process whereby parts of images are allowed to be compared and, by the process, possibilities permitted to emerge.
To jump to my own view on this, I doubt the item on her lap is intended as anything other than a book, still allowing the detail near her feet to be a spinning wheel.
The book as book is further clarified by looking at the Visconti-Sforza card.
There is no doubt that in this card she holds a book.
In no case, however, does she look directly at the book, but instead and rather seems to ‘stare’ into the distance.
A brief historical mention is here also in order. Gertrude Moakley had, in 1966, already identified this figure as Sister Manfreda of the Visconti family who had been elected Pope, with the belief of the immanent coming of the Age of the Holy Spirit and its incarnation in feminine body – Sister Manfreda had been burned as a heretic some 150 years earlier. If nothing else, it shows that such event must have still been alive in the hearts and minds of at least one 15th century Milanese family!
One more minor detail to which to pay a little attention on the Dodal. It certainly has a strange – or perhaps just unexpected – title: La Pances. This is a now obselete French word that refers to the ‘paunch’ or belly. An implication of possible focus of childbearing.
We could be lead to considerations of Pope Joan from this, as various later interpreters mention. I just find that possibility simply out of synch with the iconographic detail required of Pope Joan: Pope Joan is consistently depicted in childbirth, with child ‘falling’ through or between her legs (in what must have apparently been a very painless childbirth with her first and only child!).
So Pope Joan is simply not consistent with the overall imagery, and thus for our purposes dismiss it as unfeasible (though I accept that later interpreters may have seen in the image that plausibility). As Pope Joan it would also make the dichotomy between Papesse and Pope in the deck sequence a little more difficult to explain.
If we look at the details we have collected, we have a woman who is triple crowned, at her feet is possibly a spinning wheel, on her lap a book, and she faces in the distance, not looking at her book. She is seated indoors, yet warmly covered. At least one deck – the Dodal – implies something of her womb.
Two reflections come to mind: the first is the Papesse as allegory of the Church, and the other as eidolon of Mary, mother of Jesus.
As allegory of the Church, the triple crown is certainly also there. There is not, however, any of the other important details. Thus, though this is an area well worth further research, and meticulous historical combing of visual documents still needed, I doubt that it is this aspect that would have been intended in the card image.
It may even be, incidentally, that quite early imagery may have been of the See of Rome and the See of Constantinople, the one clean shaven and the other bearded, which eventually became feminine and masculine figures respectively.
We can reflect on this possibility by considering the Cary Sheet circa 1500.
Here, we have two cards, or partial cards, that appear to be Pope (on the right-hand-side) and Popess (on the left-hand-side), consistent with other tarot, yet also possibly both masculine figures.
Let’s return to our prior figures.
We have yet to consider her as representing Mary. If Mary, however, she is here without child, and without obvious pregnancy. If anything, and consistent with all but one of our considerations – the triple crown – the image brings to mind scenes of the Annunciation, though in this case a partial image focussing on Mary herself.
Here, the Angel of Annunciation is simply out of the image’s frame, nonetheless clearly implied.
Images of Mary, with a book – and obviously the Bible showing her pious nature – are so numerous as to be instantly recognisable. She is usually, however, and unlike tarot imagery, represented with halo, not triple crown, though images of her simple crowning following her ascension are also common.
One of her other common early attribute is to be represented with spinning wheel (in addition to a book).
Here she is with both book (on the left) and with wheel (on the right), in this case from an early 15th century altarpiece, by an unknown Hungarian Master.
The wool reminds us of her connection to the fleece of Gideon [Judges 6:37-40], to which she was commonly connected to account for her being with child, yet virgin.
37 Look! I am placing a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone and dryness on the ground all around, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hands as you said.
38 And when he happened to rise the next day, then he squeezed the fleece and he wrung out the dew from the fleece; there was a bowlful of water.
39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let your anger burn against me, but let me ask one more thing. Let me test you one more time, and only one more time, with the fleece. May the fleece alone be dry and may all the ground around it be wet with dew”.
40 And God did so that night, so that the fleece alone was dry and the ground all around it was wet with dew.
The book reminds us of common meditative practice of the times, amongst the most important being Lectio Divina.
Before we move on to briefly consider this important aspect of Lectio Divina, what I hope to have shown in this rather brief overview is that tarot’s early development draws on various sources, that some of these are unclear and possibly even misunderstood by its image-makers, and that nonetheless specific ways of viewing the image would have been somewhat different to our own first considerations.
In distinction to our forebears who lived in a world which they saw as permeated with the spiritual, we, in comparison and from their perspective, live in a world devoid of its rich presence. Or, rather, void of our own ability to open ourselves to the numinous.
So let’s return to our card and in imagination assume her position.
‘Lectio Divina’, or ‘Sacred Reading’, is usually described as a fourfold process. In the first instance, a passage is selected. The passage is then read a number of times, and in quietude time given to ruminate its words. There is then an offering of these words to the Divine, and in return an opening to the ‘faint murmuring sound’ of the still, small voice of God that begin to be heard with, as St Benedict describes, the ‘ear of our hearts’.
[MN - I Kings 19:12]
There are, of course, other methods, such as the far more active manner of Ignatian Meditation in which the scene is entered and re-entered afresh, beginning, to be sure, from a scriptural passage.
In each case, an effort on one’s part to be open to the Presence of the Numinous in the chambers of one’s heart – something that the Christian Mystical tradition has long practised and has become, these days, alternative to ‘mainstream’!
This first aspect of opening oneself to the numinous is complemented in our next card by allowing ourselves to recognise actions of the Divine manifesting in the world.
For this, let’s briefly look at the ‘Maison Dieu’.
XVI – LA MAISON DIEU
More than any other, this is probably the card that has cost me the most – financially and well as time! In the 1970s, Gettings claimed, in his book The Tarot, that the following image stems from the Cathedral in Reims (East of Paris), and that it illustrates a story from the Golden Legends, a popular text recounting the lives of the Saints.
It is from neither.
The image is from Amiens Cathedral, north of Paris, and the legend from various infancy pseudo-gospels popular in late mediæval times.
These images, in various forms, are also quite common once we know what we are looking at!
This one is from Moissac, in the South of France, not far from the Pyrénnées.
Basically the story, told in various ways but always consistent, describes the events after Mary and Joseph, with their baby Jesus, fled Judeah given Herod’s threat.
After various miracles performed en route by the infant, the story continues in Pseudo-Matthew thus:
While they travelled on, Joseph said to him, “Lord, the excessive heat is cooking us; if it pleases you, let us go by the sea, so that we can travel, resting in the coastal towns”. Jesus said to him, “Fear not, Joseph, I will shorten your journey, so that what you were going to travel across the space of thirty days, you will finish in one day”. While this was being said, behold, they began to see the mountains and cities of Egypt.
Rejoicing and exulting they came to the region of Hermopolis, and went into one of the Egyptian cities called Sotinen. Since they knew no one in it from whom they could ask for hospitality, they went into the temple which was called the “Capitolium of Egypt”. There had been placed in this temple three hundred and sixty-five idols, to which, on appointed days, divine honor was given in sacrilegious ceremonies.
It happened that, when the most blessed Mary, and her child, had entered the temple, all the idols were thrown to the ground, so that they all lay flat, convulsed and with their faces shattered. Thus they revealed openly that they were nothing. Then that which was said by the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled.
A few images from illuminated manuscripts shows this in now recognisable form.
The whole story here talks clearly of the manner in which the Divine acts on falsehood and its surroundings as a shattering. In one of these images, it seems apparent that idol and idolater is indistinct, and that the Egypt of the infancy of Jesus is overshadowed anachronistically with mediæval considerations of the same region, depicting what seems more like mediæval minarets than statues from classical and Roman times, the distinction obviously not so important to the imagination of our image-makers.
In Mediæval and even later imagery, destructive events were taken as Divine retributions with pestilence and the impact of asteroids and comets a common portent – and on the card, unlike the Amiens petroglyph we saw, we also have what appears as the destructive elements of stones from heaven, or Baetyls.
And here, let’s complete this part with a view of a 15th century representation of the destruction of Sodom.
The numinous expresses itself in the external world: the world is not simply seen as the stage for natural events, but also supernatural acts. It reflects, in that sense a view that events have their numinous qualities, irrespective as to whether a natural account may also be given.
In addition to the manner in which we open the ‘ears of our hearts’ to the still, small voice within (II-Papesse), and in which we accustom the eyes to what Goethe calls our precise active imagination to enable us to see in the external world manifestations of the numinous (XVI-La Maison Dieu), there is a third important aspect: that of the rending between the veiled numinous itself and our world, often represented by images bursting forth from cloud or aureoled in some manner or other.
XXI – LE MONDE
Here is a card that has certainly undergone various transformations, and, I would add, appropriate ones, especially in its progressive alteration from a far more masculine form to a definitely feminine one.
In early cards, it appears far more as a breasted Christ than as a woman.
There is, it seems, a semi-forgotten tradition that describes Christ in feminine terms, and how many images of him with feminine breasts have been destroyed by iconoclasts?
It was not uncommon for Christ to be so considered. Firstly, there is the ambiguity of gender in the Greek version of the New Testament in especially Revelation 1:13, in that the Greek uses ‘mastos‘ for Christ’s breasts, the word normally denoting female breasts (in distinction to ‘stethos’ for ‘chest’).
There was also, by the time of the Noblet, another influence in the writings of the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, where she (and others) speaks of ‘Mother Jesus’ and suckling the living waters (or the wine-milk of the Word) from his breasts.
In ‘From Folklore to Scientific Evidence’ [Lia Moran and Jacob Gilad, 'From Folklore to Scientific Evidence: Breast-Feeding and Wet-Nursing in Islam and the Case of Non-Puerperal Lactation', International Journal of Biomedical Science 3:4 Dec. 2007], the authors there say:
Contrary to modern days, Jesus Christ has been often portrayed as having feminine qualities in medieval times. This includes both having physical feminine attributes such as lactating breasts as well as religious ones, such as Christ lactating his believers, reversing the role of Mary and Christ-child to Mother Jesus and the child-like soul. Others have connected the wound in Jesus’ side and breasts full of soul-sustaining milk or used breast milk symbolism to illustrate ideas of the motherhood of Christ versus the fatherhood of God.
Of the late Mediæval Lyric ‘In the Vaile of Restles Mynd’, Hill mentions that ‘lines 107-12 depict [Christ] as a tender nursing mother’ [T.D. Hill 'Androgyny and Conversion in the Middle English Lyric, "In the Vaile of Restles Mynd"', ELH 53:3, 1986]. One final quote before moving on, this time by St Bernard:
Suck not the wounds, but rather the breasts of the crucified. He shall be as a mother to you, and you as a son to him [...]. So you, Lord God, are the great mother.
We see him, in the card depiction, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists – Matthew to the Man (or Angel); Mark to the Lion; Luke to the Bull; and John to the Eagle.
And importantly, in aureole, piercing the veil that normally shields us from the numinous.
Here is, then, a direct apprehension of the spiritual realms able to cross into ‘our’ physical realm.
Our three cards, viz the Papesse, Maison Dieu, and World, provide us with three examples amongst numerous others in the sequence of ways in which the numinous finds expression and reflection in tarot.
In the first instance, by means of one’s own meditative efforts and an opening to the whisperings of the spirit to our own heart; in the second, by an awakening to the inner eye that worldly events have their numinous quality; and thirdly, by direct apprehension of the spiritual realm through the perhaps rarer, but striking experiences of the few.