by Dr. Robert O’Neill
Abridged by Jean-Michel David
The Early Tarot Images
There are five surviving images of the Tower from the 15/16th centuries (Fig. 1). Four of the towers are square with doorways and four show rocks, hail, or masonry falling. Three show flames coming from the top of the Tower and apparently originating from the Sun in the upper corner. One shows a couple falling and another appears to have an animal partially concealed behind the tower. Images of the Tower similar to those in Fig. 1 occur occasionally in religious art and are common in the Apocalyptic tradition but do not occur in the traditions associated with Petrarch or the Dance of Death.
The image of the burning tower is not common in religious art but some examples can be found. Voelkle and L’Engle (Illuminated Manuscripts: Treasures of the Pierpont Morgan Library 1998, p. 31) show an illustration from a German manuscript c.1360 that depicts Lot fleeing Sodom with burning towers in the background. [...]
Cavendish (The Tarot 1975, p 122) shows a painting from a psalter of 1424 depicting the building of the tower of Babel. The workmen at the top are arguing and one is shown falling in an inverted position with pieces of masonry. Flint (The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe 1991, cover) shows an 11th century illustration of Simon Magus falling headlong from a square tower.
The Apocalyptic Tradition
The destruction of earthly kingdoms and the fall of Babylon are recurrent themes in Revelations and the artistic renderings of these themes appears to explain the Tarot images. For example, in Revelations 8:7, the first of seven angels blows its trumpet "… and, with that, hail and fire…were dropped on the earth…" and again Revelations 16:20 "…and hail…fell from the sky on the people."
This Apocalyptic reference to hail and fire may explain the falling circles and flames seen on two of the early Tarot (Fig. 1)[...].
There are two places in Revelations where the fall of Babylon, as a symbol of evil, is celebrated. Revelations 14:8 – "A second angel followed him, calling "Babylon has fallen, Babylon the Great has fallen…" [...]. The concept of ultimate punishment being dealt to material evil caught the medieval imagination and there are a number of illustrations of these verses that appear to be related to the early Tarot. [...].
A 14th century Parisian Apocalypse depicts the fall of Babylon and an angel ordering the merchants to leave the burning city of Babylon (Revelations 18:4-12). The image confirms the association of Devil and Tower. [...] An earlier manuscript of c.950 shows the destruction of Babylon with burning buildings (Voelkle and L’Engle op. cit., p. 79). A Dürer woodcut of 1498 (van der Meer Apocalypse 1978, fig. 199) shows towers falling in the background and the harlot of Babylon in the foreground.
Several other passages in Revelations relate to the destruction of the cities as symbols of material power.[...]
These passages were illustrated with images such as a 14th century depiction which shows falling towers, an inverted falling man, and a doorway. A similar image can be found in [...] van der Meer (op. cit., fig. 151). [...] Similar images can be seen in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript c.1255/60 (Grubb Revelations 1997, p. 49).
The symbolism of the falling towers and men is quite old in the Apocalyptic tradition as exemplified by a Spanish manuscript of c.950 (Fig. 8) that shows the basic theme together with a direct reference to Babylon and illustrates the celestial significance of the event by showing Stars in the sky overhead. That the Spanish Christians associated Babylon with their Islamic rulers is evident from the shape of the towers in Fig. 8 (Seidel, in McGinn 2000).
We have mentioned in earlier chapters [on the site] the iconological association of the Death/Devil/Tower symbols and the Devil/Tower association. For example, Grubb (op. cit., p. 57) shows a tapestry c.1373-81 that depicts Towers falling and Devils. A figure from a 14th century Apocalypse shows the Devil represented as the seven-headed dragon, falling Towers, hailstones as shown on some of early Tarots (Fig. 1) and with Stars and Sun in the sky above.
Another 14th century manuscript shows the falling Towers and hail together with the Moon and the darkened Sun. A similar image from another 14th century manuscript (Deuchler et al. A Forteenth Century Manuscript in Facsimile 1971) shows the falling towers together with the Stars, Moon and Sun.
This association of images has two important implications. First, the juxtaposition of images of 13 Death – 14 Devil – 15 Tower – 16 Star – 17 Moon – 18 Sun seems to confirm the relationship between the sequence of Tarot images in the type B ordering and the Apocalyptic artistic tradition that influenced so much of the religious art of the times. Second, although the juxtaposition of these symbols conveys little significance in the 21st century, it is hard to believe that a 15th century viewer did not saw the apocalyptic implications of this sequence!
[N.B. The common sequence inserts Temperance between Death and the Devil, thereby their altered numeration. ed.]
So how might the 15th century card-players have seen the Tower card? As an urban resident of a city-state in northern Italy, the players would have been intimately aware of the tower as a symbol of power – the ultimate phallic symbol. Perhaps the players would have been proud that the towers of the castles and cathedrals of their city were tall and strong – a sign of their own personal contribution to the city’s prestige and prosperity.
At the same time, the players had been saturated with sermons about the vanities of this world (Rusconi, in McGinn 2000). The players would have heard about the predictions of the Antichrist and the imminent apocalypse. Even if they might not recognize the name of Joachim of Fiore, still the friars led them to expect the overturn of the current regimes, both laic and ecclesiastical (McGinn The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism 2000).[...]
[...] Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Tower card appears in only one of the decks painted for the aristocracy? Perhaps the nobles, subjected to the same fiery Franciscan sermons, were a bit nervous about the implications of the crumbling tower of power?
Robert O’Neill is the author of the classic book Tarot Symbolism, republished by the Association for Tarot Studies.
This article first appeared on Tarot.com reproduced abbreviated with permission of the author.