by David Brice
The Early Tarot Images
When Dante Alighieri began writing his Divina Comedia in 1306, he envisioned himself moving through a universe composed of a series of concentric circles. It began with Hell, inside the spherical earth and consisting of nine circles culminating in a red-hot core. The earth itself, enclosed in its ball of atmosphere, was balanced on an axis, with Jerusalem and the Mount of Purgatory at its extremities. Then came the ten circles of the heavens, surmounted by the Prima Causa, or invisible, ineffable mind of God, from which all things were manifested.
The scheme of creation Dante presented was in many ways ancient, with its notions of crystal spheres and the geocentric orientation which moderns find quaint and primitive. But there was also much in it that reflected a new, or maybe more correctly, revised philosophy that had arisen in Dante’s time and place; northern Italy in the early 14th century was a hotbed of artistic ferment and Neoplatonic ideas. Many of these same ideas would be incorporated into the tarot at the time of its creation, roughly one and one-quarter centuries after the appearance of The Divine Comedy.
Prima Causa XXXXX, from the Tarot of Mantegna
Central to this new philosophy was the idea, inherited from Plato, that higher realities are abstractions, and that the physical world and its tangible phenomena, while real, are only shadowy and inferior reflections of spiritual realities which are, by nature and definition, abstract. But Neoplatonism was not simply rehashed Platonism; it was more a synthesizing tendency than a philosophy per se, and it assigned itself the rather unenviable task of reconciling Plato’s ideas with those of Aristotle, who envisioned a universe of hierarchies. Just as human society presents itself as a vertically arranged scale of ordered ranks, and the animal kingdom proceeds from lower to higher forms, Aristotle reasoned, so everything in the universe can be ranked and arranged in order of importance. Both of these fundamental Neoplatonic assumptions would find their way into the system of thought articulated by the Tarot trumps, which begin with the conditions of humanity as it lives in the tangible world (the Matto, and cards I through V), proceed through the more abstract virtues and vicissitudes of life such as love and war (trumps VI through XII), mark the inevitable passage of all lives through death, hell, and purgatory (numbers XIII, XV, and XVI), and culminate in the ultimate reality of the celestial regions, including an assertion of the certainty of Final Judgment.
The Neoplatonists, besides attempting to reconcile the competing philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, also worked to include Stoicism, Jewish mysticism, Arabic philosophy, and Byzantine Christianity in their grand synthesis, for the aim of the most ambitious among them, most notably Pico della Mirandola, was nothing less than the discovery of "a common universal philosophy that encompasses a broad range of human thought" (Hooker, 1). In pursuing this goal, they were not forging new modes of thought so much as attempting to harmonize the various strands they inherited from the middle ages and the ancients. Never a formal school or institutionalized movement, Neo-platonism was nevertheless enormously influential among the educated classes of 14th and 15th century Italy, and included among its adherents princes of the Church such as Cardinal Bessarion, and writers like Francesco Petrarch, whose work was a major influence on the philo-sophical orientation of the Visconti family of Milan, and whose series of poems, I Trionfi (The Triumphs) is sometimes cited as a direct pre-decessor of the series of 22 pictures we know as the tarot trumps (Kaplan, 1986, 141-147). Indeed, the most enduring legacy of Renaissance Neoplatonism is probably its application to cultural expressions of its age: literature, painting, and music (Hooker, 5).
This is why Renaissance art and its direct ancestors, medieval and ancient Roman art, are rich lodes of the same images that would find their way into the Tarot. Nearly every trump — the Lenten "King of Fools" who would become enshrined as the Tarot’s Matto (the trump which is not a trump), the Virtues, those allegorical personifications so immensely popular with European artists from ancient times onward, the ubiquitous Wheel of Fortune, which we find carved in stone in many European churches, and the Last Judgment which also found a place in the trump sequence — all of these have analogs in the universal iconographic language of the age in which they incubated.
Forteza XXXVI, from the Tarot of Mantegna
It is for this reason, more than any other, that we can finally and with confidence lay to rest the myth, long perpetuated and stubbornly resistant to the known facts, that Tarot is the repository of one or another secret doctrines. This conviction, which serves mainly to foster a sense of exclusivity among those who adhere to it, has been spread by in-numerable sources. One of the most recent argues that "Insisting on text evidence for proof of our theories is illogical given the under-ground status of its originators and the persecutions that it engendered" (Payne-Towler). This line of reasoning is not only notable for its circularity, but also fails to explain why it would be necessary to form a secret society for the promulgation of a philosophy which was universally out in the open in the form of pictures and sculptures which, taken together, can be seen as an iconographic code communicating a religious philo-sophy which is neither heretical nor dangerous. Because the fact is that, the philosophical and pictorial elements which would come together in the Tarot trump sequence were readily and publicly available to anyone in Renaissance Italy who was reasonably well educated and reasonably well versed in the philosophical and artistic currents of the time.
The Tarot of Mantegna is available at TarotGarden.com, please mention the Association for Tarot Studies or the 2005 International Conference when ordering.
This article first appeared on David Brice’s TarotSeeker site, reproduced with permission from, and thanks to, the author.