Occultists, New-Age authors, and neo-Pagans have sometimes claimed that the existence of obviously Christian emblems in the Tarot trumps is not part of the original design, but rather the result of a later redaction in which the Cabalistic, Pagan, heretical, or other supposed original content was suppressed and supplanted. In fact, just the opposite evolution took place. Almost from the beginning, the Christian allegory of the Tarot trumps was deemed inappropriate for a card game. Gaming in general was a vice, and most early references to cards were prohibitions. Tarot was more than that, being a game which included the Pope, a dangerously ambiguous Popess, and clear references to the End Times, making it inherently blasphemous to some authorities. Over time, more and more decks removed the offending cards.
What passed without offence in the ribald era of the Renaissance was no longer so readily acceptable. From the Leber Collection pack, from Aretino’s dialogue and from many poems we known that the Pope and Popess continued to figure in the 78-card Tarocco pack; their omission from the [1520s] Minchiate pack, however, was the first instance of a piece of tact or caution that was often repeated elsewhere, and it is probable that by the late seventeenth century they had ceased to adorn playing cards anywhere save in France, the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, and, of course, Bologna. Perhaps it was more a matter of proximity to Rome, for in Rome itself and throughout the Papal States (except in Bologna) it was Minchiate that, among the games of the Tarot family, became preeminently popular.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 338.)
Apparently the most commonly offensive cards were the Popess, Pope, Devil, Fire/Tower, Angel of Resurrection, and the New World of Revelation. Such clearly sacred figures had no place in a card game. Modern folklore also claims that the Roman Catholic Church condemned Tarot as heretical and/or diabolical, and deduces that this proves Tarot was much more than a harmless game. The Church as an institution, however, never took notice of Tarot and no one suggested any association with heresy. (The Devil card was reputedly used by some Venetian witches, but even then no condemnation of Tarot resulted.) Various individual preachers did condemn it, along with other games of chance, and some preachers did claim that such games were invented by the Devil. However, rather than indicating that Tarot was something more than a mere game, such condemnation was precisely because Tarot was a game.
The history of those laments goes back over a thousand years before Tarot was invented, to the third century. The online Catholic Encyclopedia describes “a homily (the famous De Aleatoribus) long ascribed to St. Cyprian, but by modern scholars variously attributed to Popes Victor I, Callistus I, and Melchiades, and which undoubtedly is a very early and interesting monument of Christian antiquity, is a vigorous denunciation of gambling.” The title refers to dice, but by extension it includes all games of chance. (Even chess, a generally respectable game not based on chance, was included by some writers.) Pseudo-Cyprian’s complaint included two significant statements about games of chance, calling dice a snare of the Devil (Zabulus, i.e., Diabolus), and comparing it with idolatry. These ideas would be repeated with regard to regular playing cards in 1576 by John Northbrooke of Bristol and in 1599 by Pierre de la Primaudaye. The 1423 sermon by St. Bernardine refers to regular playing cards (not Tarot!) as the Devil's breviary, and the 1500 Steele Sermon also suggests that dice, cards, and Tarot are tools of the Devil. The idea was apparently a commonplace. (Online Catholic Encyclopedia.) The author of the Steele Sermon complained quite explicitly about specific cards: "The Popess (O misfortune that contradicts Christian faith! O pontiff, how can this be?)" and "The Pope (who ought to be worshipped by all, and they make this joke of their leader)".
Concerning the third game of this kind, known as triumphs. There is nothing in the world pertaining to games as odious to God as this game of triumphs. It appears in fact that it contains every disgrace to the Christian faith, as is laid open by running through it. It is said and believed that triumphs, so called, were named so by their inventor the devil because no other game triumphs over the soul’s destruction as in this one. In which not only is God, the angels, planets, and the cardinal virtues disparagingly placed and named, but the true lights of the world, that is the Pope and Emperor, are also forced, which is absurd, and the greatest disgrace to Christendom that this game has entered into it. The 21 triumphs are in fact the 21 steps of a ladder that take one to the depths below.
The fact that no Devil cards survive from any of the hand-painted decks is unlikely to reflect random loss. Among the more well-known substitutions are the following: A mundane World with Europe (rather than Jerusalem) at its center replaced the New World of Revelation, and Fame replaced the Angel of Resurrection in Florentine decks. The so-called "Grand Duke" and Eastern Emperor replaced the Popess and Pope in Minchiate. Bacchus and the Spanish Captain replaced the same two cards in the Belgium pattern. Atlas and Jupiter replaced the World and Angel in Sicilian decks. Juno and Jupiter replaced the Popess and Pope in the Tarot de Besancon. A century later, a Ship and coastal Guard Tower replaced the Devil and Ruined Tower in Sicilian decks. One of the most striking examples comes from Bologna.
In 1725 an absurd event led to a change in the Bolognese tarot pack. Luigi Montieri, a canon, produced a geographical and heraldic tarot pack, which outraged papal authorities by the description, on one card, of Bologna as having a governo misto [mixed government]. Montieri and others concerned with the publication of the pack were arrested. However the papal authorities soon realized that to proceed with the case would cause great indignation in Bologna. Accordingly, they dropped their original objection and professed instead objection to the figures of the pope, popess, emperor, and empress, ordering them to be replaced by four Moors. This was done not only in Montieri’s pack but in all subsequent Bolognese packs.
(Michael Dummett, “Tracing the Tarot”, FMR, Jan/Feb 1985;)
The authorities had also objected to the Angel (Last Resurrection) card, and demanded it be replaced with a Dama or Lady. However, when the four Papi were replaced with four Moors the Angel was not replaced: “Presumably, with the affront to Papal dignity thus allayed, there was felt to be no need to press the objection to the depiction of a sacred subject on the Angelo.” (Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 319-320, 378, 84-85.) Another striking example, comes from Czechoslovakia.
It is evidence that, to Catholics in many areas, [the Popess and Pope] gave offence; to use the Emperor as a playing card was permissible, but to use the Pope in the same way was dubious, and to give him a consort appeared an outrage. An illustration of the strength of feeling this could arouse is provided by a Tarot pack made in Prague now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen. This employs the Lombard pattern, which of course includes the Pope and Popess among the trumps…. The pack now at Rouen has the usual inscriptions in French on the trumps and court cards, and, on the 2 of Cups, the inscription IN BRAG. It is in a carton, which if fits exactly, and which the catalogue states to be of German manufacture. The carton has a fine marbled exterior, and bears a label with an engraved design enclosing a hand-written note in German in what I should judge to be an eighteenth-century hand. The note reads, ‘A rare Tarock pack for which the maker was beheaded on account of a satirical figure painted on it’, and what may be a later adition to this inscription refers to trump no. II. The catalogue assigns the pack to the seventeenth century, but it can hardly be earlier than 1760. If the story is true, the unfortunate cardmaker was unjustly executed, since he was intending no satire, but merely copying the Italian prototype of the pattern he was following. I do not know whether, at that date, so harsh a punishment is likely to have been inflicted for so minor an offence, even if it had been intentional; but whether true or false, the story exemplifies the sort of reaction to the figure of the Popess that could be thought intelligible.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 218.)
In addition to such substitutions and revisionings of particular cards, there were more dramatic revisionings. The Sola Busca deck recreated the trumps as a series of figures from the Roman Republic, along with the notorious Nimrod, Nero, and Nebuchadnezzar, suggesting some sort of humanistic take on Rome and Babylon. Christian still, given that these three rulers were the greatest enemies of the Church, but far more in keeping with Renaissance sensibilities. The Boiardo poems were even more strikingly philosophical and classical in their Stoic and mythic subject matter. The quaint medieval Christian allegory of the standard trumps were repeatedly replaced with subjects more congenial to humanistic Renaissance tastes. Then there is the deck from the Leber collection in the museum at Rouen.
The pack is obviously non-standard, and is a classicised one: the court figures are labeled with inscriptions in Latin identifying them with characters of classical history (e.g. the King of Coins with Midas, King of the Lydians), while the trump cards, although clearly identifiable with the usual subjects, also have Latin inscriptions interpreting them in terms of classical mythology (e.g. the Devil is represented by Pluto and is labeled 'Perditorum Raptor'). The numeral cards are very elaborate, the Batons, in particular, being depicted as whole trees. A complete pack, very closely related to the one at Rouen, but not identical with it, was known to Count Leopoldo Cicognara, and was described by him in his book on playing cards of 1831. He illustrated it by all four Aces and trump card showing Apollo and Cupid, obviously representing the Sun and Love cards. The pack has now disappeared.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 392)
Overall, it seems fair to say that modern Tarot folklore is not merely false, as is typical, but in this case it asserts the exact opposite of the truth.