Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Iconographic Quest

The meaning of Tarot symbolism and the history of the Tarot trump cards has intrigued people for over 225 years. Many bizarre and appealing stories have been invented, and some of these fictions are still defended with the fervor of a religious cult. The entries in this journal are primarily about the intended allegorical meaning of those cards and their factual history. The false histories of Tarot, originated by 18th- and 19th-century occultists, were replaced by genuine history in 1980 with the publication of Michael Dummett’s encyclopedic The Game of Tarot. The false interpretations of the occultists were never plausible, and a reasonable, art-historical interpretation was offered by Gertrude Moakley in her 1966 book, The Tarot Trumps Painted by Bonifacio Bembo. The real history of Tarot, however, is still not widely known; the false histories and interpretations of occultists remain widely accepted in popular media and Tarot books; additional false histories and interpretations have been concocted during the last three decades; and Moakley’s interpretation, while plausible, was somewhat wide of the mark. Here we will offer an alternative to the occultists’ interpretations, closely related to that of Moakley, consistent with Dummett’s documented history of Tarot, and based on the images and sequence of the cards themselves and their relation to cognate and contemporaneous works of art and literature.

Many interpretations can be concocted to accompany the Tarot trumps, just as various moral allegories have been attached to chess and regular playing cards. Unlike most such games, however, Tarot had immediately recognizable, specific and systematic allegorical content designed into the tokens of play, the pictures on the trump cards. The presence of subjects such as the Emperor and Pope, Justice, Temperance, Love, Fortune, Death, the Devil, and the Angel of the Last Resurrection indicate moral content at a glance. In fact, the Tarot trumps exhibit a remarkable didactic design, a schematic outline of Christian salvation in the same Triumph of Death tradition as many other medieval and Renaissance works of art. They present this summula salvationis via traditional medieval concepts such as the three estates, the Fall of Princes, and Revelation's eschatological triumphs over the Devil and death. Deciphering that original moral subject matter, the meaning of the cards and their sequence, is the riddle of Tarot: interpreting the images and their order in such a manner as to make sense of the whole, honoring the "author’s message" rather than rewriting it.

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