Friday, May 9, 2008

Death's Egalitarian Triumph

The Pompeii mosaic, 1,400 years before Tarot, asserts death's universal sovereignty, as does any memento mori. However, it was designed to emphasize a fundamental equality between the most disparate members of society. Ultimate equality was a precept of the Stoics. Arguments can be made that virtue is the summum bonum and achievable by all, that only the wise are truly free, or that slaves and nobles ultimately derive from the same stock. These all point toward egalitarian conclusions, but death is the only irrefutable example of universal equality. The emblem from Wither, two centuries after Tarot, makes the same point and just as emphatically, while Van Veen's allegorical emblem has more in common with the trump cycle itself. Countless works of art and literature, song and drama, reminded people of death, and most of them took pains to allude to the universality of it. This might take the form of an Everyman character, perhaps the three nobles of the Three Living and Three Dead, perhaps the King of Life in a morality play, or an allegorical figure named Mankind. Probably the most common figures in such representations were emperor and pope, the highest members of society. In each case the expressed or implied protagonist of the allegory was all mankind, but the variety with which this subject was depicted, or sometimes simply assumed, was extreme.

Among the most spectacular examples, and more closely related to the provenance of Tarot, are the Italian Triumph of Death works, such as the fresco at Pisa (c. 1340) and the one at Palermo (c.1450). Each of these has the ranks of mankind shown in a relatively explicit form of the three estates. Although all are subject to death, each grouping may be used to convey a different ancillary message. In the Palermo fresco the third estate is not shown as peasants, craftsmen, merchants, and the like, but as the most miserable of society's dregs. Beggars and cripples are pleading for the relief of death. The clergy and nobles, presumably less deserving of being struck down and certainly less desirous it, are shown as dead, dying, and in the direct path of the oncoming horseman.

In the Pisa Triumph of Death a number of related stories are told. These place members of the three estates in rather different relationships. A group of cripples, lepers, and the like at the center of the fresco are pleading for Death to release them from their misery, like the group in the Palermo picture. A large heap of dead bodies to the right of center includes an assortment of stations. Larger still are groups of nobles at the left and right of the picture. The hunting group at the left is being instructed by a monk, in the familiar form of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The garden party at the right is in the path of Death herself, a bat-winged Reaper descending upon them. The main representation of clergy, however, is the monks at the upper left. They are shown as being above the fracas, and the monk lecturing the nobles has descended from their isolation to perform that duty.

These secondary stories being told do not change the overriding message of Death's triumph over all. The point is not that the miserable dregs of society and the virtuous monks are invulnerable to death. Each group has a different way of relating to that inevitable eventuality. The monks are fully prepared and therefore indifferent, rather like Durer's Christian knight who rides past Death and the Devil without a passing glance. The beggars are desperate; that can only be shown while they're alive, so that is how they are portrayed. Although it is convenient and conventional to group assorted death-genre works together, to understand any one of them in detail requires taking the differences into account. In many cases the artist was conflating one or more rather conventional and generic ideas with one or more rather novel and specific ones. If, for example, one wanted to simply allude to spectacular and well-known Triumph of Death works, then a list might begin with Pisa (and the associated Anchorites and Judgment works), Palermo, the Costa triumphs of Fame and Death from Bologna, the Triumph and Dance of Death works at Clusone, and Bruegel's Triumph of Death. Each one, however, is a unique work. Even in as seemingly unified a genre as illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Death there were strikingly different traditions.

Costa's Triumphs in Bentivoglio's Chapel

Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

The ranks of mankind as illustrated in the Tarot trump cycle are sufficiently complex and peculiar that most Tarot enthusiasts cannot discern them at all. This is despite the fact that the highest two subjects are as conventional as possible, the Emperor and Pope. This is also despite the fact that the three estates are clearly depicted with two subjects from each of the categories. As with most other such representations, a secondary story was also being told, and that complexity, combined with a wealth of mistaken preconceptions, places the design beyond the grasp of Tarot's many thousands of would-be exegetes. They cannot or will not accept such obvious design features as the Pope being the highest subject of that type, or the two religious, two noble, and two lowly figures being a representation of the three estates. As an example of readily intelligible variations, society's dregs as illustrated in Tarot are not the blind, cripples, lepers, and the like, but low-life entertainers, a Fool and a Mountebank. What could be more in keeping with the nature of the work itself, a card game? The subjects still convey the highest and lowest, and thereby all, just as surely as the 1st-century mosaic or the 17th-century emblems. Tarot just does it a bit differently -- which is itself typical -- and in a manner appropriate to the cycle's use in a game.

The Estates and Ranks of Man