Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Ace of Cups: Christian Content in Tarot

The highest cards in the Tarot trump hierarchy show the Last Resurrection (Rev 20) and New World (Rev 21) from the Bible. In some later, most notably Florentine decks, the meaning of these cards was changed (the Angle of Resurrection became an allegory of Fama, trumpeting over the Florentine skyline) and their order reversed, creating a triumph of Fame over an explicitly Euro-centric World. This humanist secularization of the highest trumps in Renaissance Florence is hardly surprising; rather, it is quite typical of Florentine hubris. However, Robert V. O'Neill, an influential writer who obviously understood the meaning of neither sequence, has claimed that "the inversion of the last two cards can be easily explained as an attempt to Christianize the Tarot. This simple change may have made the symbols more acceptable to a Catholic audience." (295) His assumption is that the original design was heretical, viz., "Hellenistic, Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and heterodox". In his view, the three Moral Virtues in Tarot were also reordered to "Christianize the deck", along with dropping the Popess card, etc. As with the Last Resurrection and New World of St. John's Revelation, even the most blatantly Christian elements are taken out of context and distorted beyond recognition by O'Neill.

The Pope card is one of the most orthodox symbols in the deck. To the overt examiner, this card represents the spiritual leader of mankind. Yet this is only the obvious interpretation. If we have established nothing [else] in the first eight chapters, we have at least established that allegorical interpretations were a predilection of the Renaissance. Renaissance use of allegory had two major components. Renaissance use of allegory had two major components. Second, the deeper, more significant meaning of a symbol could be expected to contradict the superficial meaning. Both of these uses of allegory were common throughout the Renaissance and were a distinguishing characteristic of the dualist heretics. In most ages, the Pope card would indicate an orthodox symbolic system. But in the Tarot and in the age when they were designed, one can expect that many orthodox symbols will be deliberately inserted into the system, just to deceive the casual observer. In the case of the Pope card, the symbol may actually represent the supreme heretical Pope, situated in Bulgaria. (Tarot Symbolism, 205.)

Thus, even the most stridently Roman Catholic symbolism is inverted to represent "the supreme, heretical Pope". The actual meaning of the trump hierarchy will be discussed in future posts, but here we introduce O'Neill's popular conclusion: "The basic reason to discredit these attempts to Christianize the deck is that they are unsuccessful. The Tarot is still not orthodox even after the changes." This blunder, based on bias and preconceptions, is almost universally shared among popular Tarot writers. The fact is that Tarot told a characteristically medieval-Christian message, which was denatured in different ways, at different times, in different places over a period of centuries. That is, Tarot was DE-Christianized over time. Let's examine a striking example of the original Christian content.

Tarot's Ace of Cups

The Stoic motto, "neither hope nor fear", on a fountain with two streams -- what does it mean? The 15th-century Tarot card (Victoria-Albert Museum) seems peculiar, given that the suit-sign is cups, not fountains.

Tarot's Ace of Cups is the only suit card that had significant and relatively consistent symbolic content from the beginning of Tarot history. This was true in the earliest surviving Italian decks, from the 1440s. Today, occultists have imposed meanings on all the suit cards, and historically, cards other than the Ace of Cups were sometimes freighted with meaning in one particular deck or another. However, only the Ace of Cups was routinely depicted as something beyond a regular playing card. There were two basic symbols used, both sacramental: a fountain with six sides and two flowing streams, referring to the sacrament of Baptism, and a Gothic monstrance, referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Fifteenth-century Italians were devout Christians. Even the most radical Renaissance humanists, the most perverse heretics, and the hopelessly illiterate, were well acquainted with medieval Christian topoi or conventional symbols. These images were universally recognized.

Left:A 15th-century woodcut of St. Clare holding a Gothic monstrance as an identifying attribute. Right: The Ace of Cups from the most popular early Tarot deck (Tarot de Marseille style; from before c.1500). The similarity of the two is striking, and both represent an ostensorium or presentation vessel for a consecrated Host, the Body of Christ.

Left: A hand-painted Ace of Cups card, with silver and gold leaf, from the oldest surviving Tarot deck (Cary-Yale Visconti deck; Milanese, early 1440s). Right: A 15th-century woodcut of angels holding a monstrance, containing the consecrated Host, for veneration.

Left: Christ (as Man of Sorrows) and the Virgin kneel before a fountain of water and blood, in which float Eucharist wafers. God the Father presides overhead, while the Holy Ghost (as a Dove) descends to the fountain, which provides nourishment for the souls below. Right: A hand-painted Ace of Cups card from one of the oldest surviving Tarot decks (Visconti-Sforza deck; Milanese, early 1440s). Far Right: A fountain very similar to the one with which we began is shown on the Goldschmidt Ace of Cups. Being encircled by the ouroboros, representing eternity, adds an exclamation point to the symbol of Holy Baptism.

Woodcuts from Richard S. Field, Fifteenth Century Woodcuts and Metalcuts from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965. From the Rosenwald collection.

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