Over the last 6-8 years it has become common in online Tarot discussions to acknowledge, albeit sometimes under duress, two things that used to be vehemently denied throughout the Tarot community. First, there is Christian content in the Tarot trump cycle, and second, the hierarchy constitutes a moral allegory. Even some recent books by occult apologists give lip-service to these ideas, as long at they are vaguely stated and don't get in the way of fortune-telling, heretical doctrines, Neoplatonic mysticism, and maybe an esoteric manifesto or Cabalistic correspondences. One crucial element of the moral allegory is that the lowest trumps constitute a "ranks of man" motif, representing all mankind as the subject of the allegory. However, in the vacuous musings of popular Tarot authors, this concept is applied as loosely as every other ill-conceived and poorly-defined notion, and the result is a haphazard analysis which explains nothing. For example, the allegory of Love, the Triumphal Chariot, the Hermit (originally an allegory of Time), the Hanged Man, and sometimes other trumps as well, are passingly referred to as elements of the ranks of man.
In fact, the Tarot trump cycle is a moral allegory, but these are not empty words. They have meaning and implications. As discussed in the post, Iconography and the Order of the Cards, first and foremost the trumps constitute a hierarchy, both in terms of the game and the allegorical reading of the cycle. There are three different types of subject matter represented by the lowest-ranking, middle, and highest-ranking trumps. Understanding this means interpreting the meaning of those cards within that sequential context. The lowest trumps represent Mankind or Everyman, the protagonist of the allegorical narrative, and it is patently obvious that this section concludes with the Emperor and Pope. No one but the Pope ranks higher than the Emperor, so they necessarily conclude that section. (Among other things, this fact conclusively rebuts the beloved occultist preconception of the trumps in terms of septenaries. Sad perhaps, but evidence trumps preconceptions.)
A pictorial moral allegory might be something as simple as an image of Father Time or the Grim Reaper, although the viewer must supply most of the details in such a case. Given two-millennia of Stoic-Christian traditions, that is easily done. The protagonist is all mankind; the allegorical circumstance to which they are subject is personified; the themes are the vanity and transience of this life and, for Christians, the implied import and permanence of the next. In more elaborate pictorial allegories a protagonist is shown rather than implied. Everyman's encounter with Death (right) is an example. Having a single figure represent Mankind is probably the most common approach to moral allegory in literature. It may take various forms, including a personified Everyman or Mankind, sometimes portrayed as a noble or even a king (for example, in the morality play Pride of Life), a knight, a pilgrim, etc. Even the author of the work may stand as representative of Mankind. And, naturally enough from a contemporary point of view, a fictional character may be used. This last approach takes us a step away from the more archaic, blatantly forced forms of allegory toward more acceptably modern forms of art and literature, i.e., less obviously allegorical.
A Ranks of Mankind
Another approach to representing Mankind is the use of multiple representatives. This is most commonly seen in the conventional Wheel of Fortune depictions, where several (often four) figures are shown at different points of the wheel. (A very neat ranks of man illustration from Petrarch's De Remediis was included in the Order of the Cards post.) In some cases, each of these figures represents a class of Mankind. In other cases, specific notable figures, historical or mythological, are used. This is the method of exemplars, and may either employ a few select illustrative figures or, in the case of Boccaccio's De Casibus, an encyclopedic collection of them. In many such cases, especially in literature, only notable figures are depicted. The implication is that if even the wealthiest, most virtuous, and most powerful figures are subject to Time, Fortune, Betrayal, and Death, then so is all Mankind.
This is a detail (right) from the 14th-century fresco of The Church Militant and Triumphant by Andrea da Firenze. The god-given order of medieval society shows the pope and emperor enthroned in the center. Leading away from the Emperor are a king, a prince, nobles, knights, merchant, scholar, women and lower-ranked laymen. Leading away from the pope are a cardinal, bishop, along with other members of religious orders. Nobles, clergy, and laymen are all represented, protected by the black and white dogs symbolizing the Dominicans (Domini Canes, watchdogs of God). The Church Militant is thus represented by all living Christians, including all estates and ranks. These figures do not necessarily represent actual individuals, but are representative of a class of people. On the other hand, the All Saints motif, as depicted in Durer's Allerheiligenbild or Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece combines the Church Militant with the Church Triumphant, (i.e., both living and dead), resulting in the possibility of specific identifications and the presence of multiple popes, etc. The point here, however, is simply that they show religious rulers, secular rulers, and lesser figures in an encompassing ranks of mankind.
So, Mankind can be personified by a single allegorical figure, such as a pilgrim, a knight, a noble, or a figure explicitly named Everyman, or exemplified by some such representative selection of figures. When a selection of representatives is used, it usually entails a religious leader, a secular leader, and some lesser figure. Very often the two higher-ranking figures are emperor and pope. Thus, whenever an emperor and pope are seen as part of a group, the likelihood is great that either either Everyman (saved and damned) or the Church Militant (good Christians still living) is the allegorical subject being represented. The 15th-century image of Mary shielding the faithful from the Black Death (with God the Father brandishing Death's darts) is another typical example. Front and center can be seen the emperor and pope, with kings and cardinals close behind, and lesser figures receding into the background.
This brings us to the most common use of such a ranks of man motif: allegories of Death. Eschatological illustrations often borrowed from such allegorical figures, including depictions of the Angels of the Euphrates and also the Four Horsemen, and often showed a ranks of man. Some depictions of an isolated Hellmouth would include emperor and pope along with lesser figures. The Dance of Death is precisely an elaborate ranks of man motif, with each individual, beginning with the Pope and Emperor, facing Death. Triumph of Death works routinely illustrated a ranks of man, with a prominent emperor and pope among the fallen figures. This was true in both the great paintings, such as those from Bologna, Pisa, Palermo, and Clusone, and in the more common Petrarchian depictions. Petrarch himself used the method of exempla in his Trionfi, listing a great many notables in the triumphs of Love and Chastity, all of whom fall to the Triumph of Death.
The point here, as in the Iconography and the Order of the Cards post, is to emphasize the context of the trump cycle itself. The hierarchy either constrains the meaning appropriate to each figure in it, or else Dummett was correct and there is no significant meaning to the Tarot trumps. Given the pervasive use of such ranks of man motifs, the common identifying feature of emperor and pope, and the placement of Emperor and Pope at just the right place in the trump hierarchy, the lowest-ranking cards must be interpreted in that context. As far as I am aware, no one proposing to interpret the Tarot trumps has even taken this first step, breaking the trumps appropriately into three sections and following the lead developed by Dummett over a quarter century ago. However, this is where serious Tarot iconography must begin, with cognate subject matter in art and literature and an analysis of the hierarchy consistent with such subject matter and with the historical orderings of the trump cycle.
Here are some online resources with period images of a ranks of man. Naturally, the Dance of Death is the godfather of all allegorical ranks of man works. The first site has a wealth of information more or less directly related to the Tarot trump cycle, a related work of art.
- The Dance of Death
- Essays Related to the Dance of Death
- The Mirror of Death
- Death in Art (Patrick Pollefey)
- Bologna Triumph of Death
- Pisa Triumph of Death
- Palermo Trionfo della Morte
- Clusone Triumph of Death and Dance of Death
- Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb
- Albrecht Durer, The Adoration of the Trinity
- Andrea di Bonaiuto (da Firenze), Way of Salvation