Over 350 years ago, in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain section of Paris, France, a cardmaker named Jean Noblet produced what was probably considered a fairly ordinary deck of tarot cards. Tarot historian Michael Dummett suggests that “A million is probably a highly conservative estimate for the number of Tarot packs produced in France during the seventeenth century; of those, no more than four have survived to us.” One of these is the Tarot of Jean Noblet, the oldest surviving TdM (Tarot of Marseilles).
We don’t know how many decks of this type he created, or whether he also made other styles of decks (such as common playing cards), but historical records indicate that he was producing decks sometime around 1650-1660. To help put this on context, consider that the “minuet” was all the rage at the French court; a 12 year old Louis XIV, who would later call himself “the Sun God”, was on the throne, but not yet coronated; and “L’École des Filles” (“The Girl’s School”, an obscene novel) was being secretly enjoyed by the female “bourgeois”. The name Napoleon would not be widely known for nearly another 150 years.
Today, this one remaining TdM deck from the 17th century is preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, France, which seems an appropriate home for it indeed. It is kept company by other famous early Tarot decks including the so-called “Charles VI Tarot”, the “Jean Dodal Tarot”, and a remarkable tarot from the same period, but of a different design, by Noblet’s fellow Parisian, Jacques Vieville. Out of the original 78 cards in Noblet’s deck, 73 remain; the 6-10 of Swords are missing. The cards are in good condition, but some of the details are hard to discern where the pigments have darkened over time, (especially in some of the dark blue and dark green areas). Nevertheless, the lines are usually clearly defined, and there are plenty of details that have been retained for us to explore.
The Jean Noblet Tarot has not been published in a photo-reproduction like some of the other tarots which have been available over the past few decades, this is probably because the deck is incomplete. We’ve been fortunate enough to have copies of rare decks like the “Tarot of Paris”, the Jean Dodal, the Jacques Vieville, and several versions of the famous Nicholas Conver Tarot of 1760. In fact, with the exception of the few decks mentioned above, almost all Marseille Tarots published over the past two centuries have been either versions of the Nicholas Conver, or decks based closely upon it. Even the name “Tarot of Marseilles” is a misnomer, applied to the style that most of us have come to think of as typified by the Conver tarot, but actually referring to a pattern that goes back farther in time than that, and probably far beyond the seaport of Marseilles, France.
It can be a bit startling to compare the iconography of the Conver-style decks to earlier decks like the Jean Noblet and Jean Dodal. Details that we’ve taken for granted as part of the “TdM Tradition”, such as the profile-faced Moon on the Conver, are here different: the Moon stares directly at us; the figure on the World card is not a dancer holding a scarf, but a figure wearing a cape and holding a scepter; Cupid is blindfolded on the Lovers; even the Hanged Man seems odd… sticking out his tongue at us while (what appears to be) his hands dangle behind his back. There are many such differences, and there are even differences in the Noblet deck that don’t appear in any other at all.
Tarot historian Thierry Depaulis noted these differences in 1986, and coined the terms “TdM Type I” for decks with iconography like the Jean Noblet and Jean Dodal, and notes that the style died out after 1750. “TdM Type II” is typified by the Nicolas Conver tarot. Depaulis says, “Briefly, the TdM Type II appears to me to be a ‘modernisation’ of the TdM Type I”. This really shouldn’t be a surprise when we consider the time period between these decks. The Jean Noblet dates from the mid-1600s, the Jean Dodal from the early 1700s, and the Nicolas Conver from the mid-1700s. As further proof of the antiquity of the TdM Type I style, a review of the “Cary Sheet”, an uncut sheet of cards of an unusual pattern that is dated to around 1500, shows a clear relationship to the iconography of TdM Type I. Tarot historians are still uncertain what the relationship is between the Cary Sheet and the TdM, but that there is a relationship, and that it is to the TdM Type I pattern is fairly established.
Interest in the Jean Noblet and Jean Dodal tarots has gained momentum in the past few years. Partially, this is a reflection of what appears to be a growing interest in historical decks, and particularly TdM decks. Several reprints of Nicolas Conver based decks, as well as “restorations” of the TdM by several modern cardmakers, have allowed more choices for readers and collectors to find alternatives to tarots based on the more common Waite-Smith or Crowley-Harris designs.
Regarding the Jean Noblet deck, one craftsman in France, Jean-Claude Flornoy, has provided many tarot enthusiasts with an opportunity to explore the deck again for the first time in hundreds of years. Several years ago Flornoy began producing custom made decks of the 22 Trump cards from the Jean Noblet and the Jean Dodal tarots.
Flornoy obtained high resolution scans of the decks from the Bibliothèque Nationale and retraced the lines, maintaining their integrity as closely as possible. These were then transfered onto high-grade paper, then fine gouache pigments were applied through stencils with boar-bristle brushes. For the Noblet, two sheets were hand-stenciled with six separate color applications each… just to create one deck! The cards were then varnished, cut, combined with a numbered booklet, and placed into boxes for delivery. Some of these decks are still commercially available, but production of them by this method is rumored to have ended, and when the remaining editions are gone they will almost certainly become collectors items.
In 2005, Flornoy began work on a complete 78 card version of the Jean Noblet. Like his earlier decks, the goal was to faithfully reproduce the look of the deck as closely as possible to what it would have looked like new in 1650. Knowing the realities of producing a deck of that size, it must have seemed only sensible that the deck should be brought to market through traditional printing. Of course, the hand-made quality of the earlier decks would be impossible to reproduce, but the deck would be much more accessible to a larger audience by using traditional techniques.
One of the first challenges must have been how to recreate the five missing cards. Thankfully, the similarities between the Jean Noblet and the Jean Dodal gives a fairly clear suggestion of what the missing 6-10 of swords on the Noblet would have looked like. Also lucky, it was only Pip cards missing, no courts or trumps had to be recreated.
There are many curiosities in the Jean Noblet tarot. One of the most striking is on the Fool card. Jean Noblet is the only TdM to show the genitals on the fool. This feature makes the animal (is that a dog? a cat? something else?) about to pounce on the fool all the more threatening. It’s hard to know if this is something original to the Jean Noblet tarot. There are old, Italian hand-painted cards that show a Fool with exposed genitalia, so perhaps this is a remainder from a lost tradition?
On the Bateleur (the older equivalent of the Magician) one of his hands seems to be broken off, probably an accident on the woodblock from which the deck was originally printed. Compared to “traditional” TdM iconography, there is a lot to consider. The Popess hides one of her hands beneath her book. The Emperor faces in the opposite direction than what is typically found in TdM decks. The Chariot has a scalloped curtain rather than drapes. The Hanged Man sticks out his tongue, and appears to have “fingers” or “wings” hanging from behind his back. Death has a straggly crop of hair, and also faces the “wrong” direction. The Devil has an additional face on his belly. The Tower has flames which come out of the tower and reach towards the sky.
Two very interesting cards are the Sun and the World. On the Sun, the two figures at the bottom seem to be an adult man and woman, rather than what is usually considered twin boys. The World, as mentioned above, has a caped figure, similar to that found on the Jacques Vieville and Jean Dodal tarot, but here clearly with breasts. All four of the “evangelists” (the Angel, Eagle, Ox and Lion) have a halo, and like the Jacques Vieville, the entire bodies can be distinguished. Both of these cards bare a striking similarity to some cards found in the Sforza Castle in Milan. The Sforza Castle cards are from different decks of unknown dates (guesses range anywhere from the early 1500s to the mid 1700s), but seem to indicate that some features of the iconography in TdM Type I decks appeared in Italy, and possibly before titles were added!
Perhaps equally important to the iconographic differences (and surely for some, much more important!) is what might be described as a deck’s “character”. In this the Jean Noblet tarot really shines. The characters have so much expression! This is especially impressive when we consider that the originals were woodcuts, of what was at the time probably fairly “run-of-the-mill” playing cards. Where this really becomes apparent is on the Court cards. The images are full of life and are sometimes even a bit bawdy! The Queen of Batons, even though the lines seem to indicate she is wearing a blouse, has her nipples prominently colored red. As one member on Aeclectic Tarot Forum suggested, the King of Batons seems to be looking over at her as if to say “For goodness sakes put on a shirt we have guests.”
The faces, not only of the people, but even their horses are incredibly expressive. Each has an identifiable character… whether it’s the happy, friendly, gaze on knight and horse on the Knight of Batons; the seriousness of the Knight of Coins; or the rather odd mixture of determined knight and confused horse that seems to be shown on the Knight of Swords.. it is a deck of many wonders. The King of Coins is a very respectable old gent with a lovely double-pointed beard.. but his lady seems questionably frumpy! What does the Valet of Cups hide under the veil? What is that behind the Knight of Cups?
The Queen of swords looks pregnant, but that’s not uncommon in the TdM… and the King seems to be having a conversation with her that might be better left to a private room! If one lines the cards up next to each other, one wonders just what he is staring at? One odd characteristic of the Jean Noblet deck is that all of the Valets seem to be standing in rather “plain” ground, composed basically of two horizontal areas… the Valet of Swords having a different color combination, and slightly more interesting line shape… but still, oddly barren landscapes.
We’re left to wonder, 350 years later, what did Mr. Noblet intend to convey with his deck? Was he working as many of us do now.. day to day to make ends meet, and simply providing a supply to the demand? Did he see deeper, esoteric, spiritual meaning in the iconography of his work? With the Jean Noblet Tarot, we have a glimpse into the understanding of Tarot from a 17th Century Parisian perspective. We also have the benefit of the knowledge and care that Jean-Claude Flornoy has brought to this old tradition.
There are so many wonderful reasons to obtain and treasure this deck… the history.. the art.. the tradition. Perhaps the most meaningful is to consider the responses the imagery brings up in us individually, it seems to speak a very old language indeed. Whether we are looking at this deck for reading, for history, or both.. we can only be thankful that out of the millions of decks from the 1600s, at least this one TdM survives. Now.. about that Fool card…