Unless living in continental Europe and knowing what to look for and where, it is only since the nineteen-eighties that images from older decks became easily accessible with Kaplan’s first volume of his now four volume (and I hear soon-ish to be five) Encyclopedia of Tarot. Even with the first two volumes available by 1990, historically oriented decks were themselves scarce. It’s only with the advent of the internet that the last ten years has made a reasonably large number of early images readily available for those of us in search – yet without the proper research means – of early models and what these may possibly have meant or intended. This does not of course mean that many books were not also earlier available: to be sure, they were, and provided much to whet the mind’s imaginative faculty.
Grimaud (c. 1930)
Conver (c. 1760)
‘simplified’ though typical tympanum showing Christ and four evangelists
It’s in this context that what has always been apparent (at least to me) is twofold: on the one hand the obviousness of the Christian basis and Christian content of the imagery of the trumps; and on the other that decks to which I had access to simply seemed to be ‘missing’ the one image that it seems ‘ought’ to be there in this context, namely that of Christ. It seemed of course obvious that the Grimaud Marseille, and the 1760 Conver on which it is based, bore direct iconographic similarities to the ubiquitous cathedral tympanum carvings showing Christ amongst the four evangelists. The obvious and ‘problematic’ connection being, of course, Christ’s and the World card’s contrasting depicted gender: whereas Christ is obviously masculine, the World, in those cards, is unquestionably depicted with feminine attributes.
This does not negate in any manner the way in which tarot has also, especially since the development of the neo-Pagan revivalism of the 1980s, been appropriated and modified to reflect numerous world-views: from those that suggest more jungian concepts to others that incorporate Buddhist, Australian Dreamtime, Native American, Aztec, Wiccan, or indeed harken to ancient and modern myths and sagas from those of Ancient Egypt or Greece to the Kalevala and modern literary giants such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. All these, of course, irrespective as to what I personally consider the merit or otherwise of any specific examplar, and omitting another huge range of decks that are essentially artistic templates or ‘frames’ (from Dali to the hundreds of perhaps lesser known, but in some cases incredibly talented artists).
Having before us a deck such as the Grimaud that reflected in so many ways the central trunk of tarot’s diversity, and finding that this deck was essentially unmodified since the 1760s, the type of deck was very fast, for myself at any rate, the core upon which an understanding of tarot as a whole needed to be mapped to or, perhaps by better analogy, anchored. Even more so when it is realised that most twentieth century tarot themselves derive in large part via the works of either Wirth, Waite, Crowley, Falconnier, or Etteilla, and that each and all of those are based, at least for their trumps, on first and foremost the Marseille-style.
It is also apparent, however, that as we look back into history, the earliest of known decks differ from the Marseille-type. Of most obvious differing form are the Visconti-type decks, individually hand-painted and gilded in the 15th century. Also, differences arise in what appears to be a number of possible orderings (not only were the earliest decks un-titled and un-numbered, but when numbering did start to make an appearance, variations occurs, with, for example, the Hermit numbered XI). In terms of imagery, the Visconti-Sforza, Cary-Yale, anonymous Parisian (due to the publishing house’s name having been carved out of the woodblock prior to the imprint that has survived), and Vieville, each pre-1700 decks yet the second pair dating two centuries later than the first, display significant enough differences:
Visconti-Sforza (c. 1450)
Cary-Yale Visconti (c. 1450)
anomynous Parisian (c. 1650)
Vieville (c. 1650)
Each of those decks include elements that have important symbolic references, many of which slowly being re-discovered by the tarot community. In the decks above, for example, the Visconti-Sforza may display, as suggested by both Moakley and more recently by Berti and Gonard, the Heavenly Jerusalem; in contrast the Cary-Yale and the Parisian seem to suggest Fate or Fortune over the fate of lands and the Earth. In the Vieville, we find the closest overall iconographic image to the Marseille-type earlier shown. Yet this quite late depiction is not the sole of the period or earlier as both the card found in one of the Sforza castlelets and the Noblet bear important resemblances:
Sforza Castle well card (c. 1500)
Noblet (c. 1650)
The Heavenly Jerusalem of the Visconti-Sforza is, to be sure, conceptually very closely related to the Vieville in that this city is deemed as the heavenly abode of the eternal Christ as presented in especially mediæval and renaissance Christianity. That he appears more ambiguously feminine in the Noblet does not diminish the intent as Christ. Apart from any other considerations, numerous mystical works exist that speak of Christ in feminine terms and, specifically, with reference to his bosom suckling his children – ie, us.
Amongst a couple of other examples I also include in my Reading the Marseille Tarot is a quote from Lia Moran and Jacob Gilad’s ‘From Folklore to Scientific Evidence’ [International Journal of Biomedical Science Dec. 2007], who remind us that:
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.
That there is a ‘natural’ transformation of a figure that earlier clearly represented Christ surrounded by the four evangelists to that same figure as (initially) ambiguously feminine and over time ever less so makes sense in this context – as long as the concept of Christ with feminine attributes remains something that is alive to the mystical life of the community. Once this aspect is lost, so too does the figure’s original reference become somewhat forgotten and eventually transformed to something else that can be meaningfully re-considered. In our case, a figure that increasingly becomes simultaneously removed and present as tentative steps are taken to gain anew what a ‘Spiritu Mundi’ may mean.
In a sequence of cards that clearly bears a Renaissance Christian worldview – albeit one infused with neo-platonic and neo-aristotelean elements – it ‘makes sense’ to have its highest figure alive in the realm of the spirit yet at once both reachable and ineffable. The perfected Man, the second Adam, into which not only as breath been breathed (the ‘A’–air into the blood formed out of earth–DaM), but also, for the Christian, the Fires of Life (Shin) descended within humanity, and at once also showing a metamorphosis of Yahweh to Jeheshuah.
Allow me a little to explain the above.
Let’s first take a couple of steps back.
If the Hebrew alphabet has had any organising influence of the ordering of the trumps (and also have a small impact on minor details), then it is unlikely to have been in the order that was imposed on the cards by late 19th century views – though these in turn have of course had an impact on how decks that adopt views from the derivative orders of the three main ‘traditions’ will include details to match the preference.
In my personal view, I still consider it highly likely that some simple influence assisted in getting the trump sequence and its iconography stabilised between its creation around the first half of the 15th century and the time it became ‘canonised’ by what we now call the Marseille-type in the mid-17th century. Something like an ordered alphabetic sequence, due to its simplicity, certainly has appeal. This in itself does not make it correct, of course. What is interesting is that the letters’ ordinal values reflect well the Marseille-type’s numbered trumps, with the un-numbered Fool placed where only he can be: last, yet wherever he pleases.
If this sequence has any meaning, then each and every card, without much effort, would need to in some extent or other reflect an alphabetic consideration. Some more ‘obvious’ visual ones are Alef and the Bateleur, Lamed and the Pendu, Ayin and the Tower, Tzaddhi and the Moon, Kof and the Sun; some become ‘as obvious’ with a little reflection on the similarity of meanings of the letter-as-word or its import, such as Beit and the Papess, Samek and the Devil, and Resh and Judgement.
With Shin (or Sin – excuse the pun that only works in English and could not resist in the title of this piece), what we have is the twenty-first letter, so some aspect to its relation to Christ needs to be found if the methodology is to yield feasible or plausible results. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest upon which to reflect as long as some of the common practices of the times is known.
Yahweh, or the unpronounced name of God in the Torah, is written with four letters: YHVH, and these are themselves found commonly enough in especially high places enclosed within a triangle in numerous Cathedrals – though at times it is obvious that the carver knew no Hebrew but was instead merely copying script he or she was not able to ‘read’:
YHVH rendered in typically poor Hebrewl
One of the views that gained some prominence (and a means used in attempts to convert Jews – when more brutal means were not at play), was to claim that God the Father becomes God the Son in the ‘insertion’ of the Holy Spirit (who has tongues of flame, as does Shin) within the tetragrammaton (tetra means four in Greek, hence ’4-lettered name’). In other words, YHVH→YHShVH Yahweh is Yeheshuah (Jesus).
YHShVH (as read from right to left)
In the context of the card image, this can be brought to reflection as the central figure is seen to be embedded within the four living creatures said to be at the Throne of God.
Within the religious context and mysticism of the times, the image, its placement, and even its possible Hebrew letter become understandable, and a redemption of the World in its eternal call towards Holy Jerusalem something that, for the person wishing to reflect on the imagery as religious art, a feasible reflection.
Of course, these reflections do not mean that the trumps necessarily developed in quite the way here mentioned…
Similarly, that the central image has come to be first and foremost feminised beyond its likely earlier pointing to Christ reflects the mores of the times that change with the spiritual strivings within cultural shifts. Nonetheless and in my personal view, the grounding of the image needs to also be recognised.