Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Leber-Rouen Tarot

Thirty cards survive from a classicized sixteenth-century Tarot deck, in the Leber Collection in the Bibliothèque Municipale di Rouen. The cards are hand colored with gold and silver highlights. The images are classical figures but, in striking contrast to other classicized decks like Sola Busca and Boiardo, the trump subjects are neatly consistent with the standard Tarot subjects. Michael Dummett summarized the deck, and a similar one:

The pack is obviously non-standard, and is a classicised one: the court figures are labelled with inscriptions in Latin identifying them with characters of classical history (e.g. the King of Coins with Midas, King of the Lydians [right]), 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 labelled '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.

As Dummett's examples illustrate, the subjects chosen conflate standard trump subjects with classical myth and history in a fairly transparent manner. Midas as the King of Coins is dead obvious, and Alexandar the Great is equally appropriate as the King of Swords (above-left). Cupid is shown in virtually all historical decks. Pluto as the Devil and Apollo as the Sun are just as natural as any possible classical subjects. As is the case with virtually all pre-Gébelin Tarot decks, the only serious mystery is why occultists claim Tarot to be so mysterious.

The motto of the Emperor is Imperator Assiriorum (right). This is the ruler of the Assyrian Empire, perhaps Sardanapalus. Sardanapalus was a legendary figure whose story was included as one of the 56 biographies in De Casibus Virorum Illustribus and who appeared in the Boiardo Tarot deck as an example of Idleness. The figure in the Leber-Rouen deck is shown riding a camel.

The motto of the Pope is Pontifex Pontificum (left), that is, the high priest of the Collegium Pontificum (College of Pontiffs) or Pontifex Maximus. The image blends this Roman office with that of the Roman Catholic Pope, depicting the figure with the conventional triple tiara.

The motto of the Chariot is Victoriae Premium (right), the reward of victory. This is about as straightforward as imaginable, given that the celebration of a Roman triumph was a reward for a great military victory.

The motto of Time is Rerum Edax (left), the Devourer of Things. Like Fortune's motto, this is a universally understood metaphor.

The motto of Fortune is Omnium Dominatrix (right), the Ruler of Everything. This is like the well known title, Imperatrix Mundi, a perfectly conventional view of Fortune.

The motto of the Devil is Perditorum Raptor (left), Ravisher of the Lost. This refers to Pluto and the popular story of Prosperine, which is depicted.

The motto of the Star is Inclitum Sydus (right), the Prominent (Famous, Glorious, etc.) Star. This is a bit peculiar, but then so are some standard Tarot Star cards. In general terms, the Star is usually an indirect reference to Christ. This is what enables Fire from Heaven (the previous card) to triumph over the Devil (two cards lower than the Star). This may be indicated by depicting the three Magi who followed the Star, or by more obscure allusions. In this case it appears that the allusion is to Stella Maris or, more precisely, a Pagan precursor. Stella Maris was the guiding light for sailors, metaphorically those traveling in the Barque of Peter, i.e., the Church of Rome. James Frazier, in The Golden Bough, says this about Star of the Sea:

The attributes of a marine deity may have been bestowed on Isis by the sea-faring Greeks of Alexandria. They are quite foreign to her original character and to the habits of the Egyptians, who had no love of the sea. On this hypothesis Sirius, the bright star of Isis, which on July mornings rises from the glassy waves of the eastern Mediterranean, a harbinger of halcyon weather to mariners, was the true Stella Maris, “the Star of the Sea.”

The identification with Stella Maris may seem odd, but certainly a Star and the sea, with ship and fish, are depicted. A modern Stella Maris icon (above-left) includes a number of salient elements corresponding to the Prominent Star of the Leber-Rouen deck.

There doesn't appear to be any readily available source for the Leber-Rouen deck. Three different books were scanned just to get images of the seven trump cards.


  1. I think Inclitum Sydus could represent Venus rising from the see, as in the painting by Botticelli. This also seems consistent with Pluto as the Devil, Saturn devourer of his sons, Apollo as the Sun (in Cicognara's deck).

  2. Hi, Marco,

    I certainly agree that Venus is THE star in many contexts, and that she is the first thing that would come to virtually anyone's mind given 1) the Prominent Star title, 2) the naked woman, 3) rising from the sea. In a deck like Boiardo or Sola-Busca, where there is no substantial association between the novelty trumps and Tarot's standard trump cycle, that would be the end of it.

    I took that meaning for granted, but you are right to point out that it should not only be included, it should be noted first.

    My point here was to argue a secondary meaning, a conflation of the obvious classicized meaning, Venus, with the meaning required by the standard trump cycle.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

    Best regards,

  3. In "The ship of the fools", ed. 1511, just behind the illustration of LA ROVE DE FORTUNE ( ), there are this paragraphs:

    Whyle Nabugodonosor kynge of Babylone
    In vnsure fortune set to great confydence
    Commaundynge honour vnto hym to be done
    As vnto god: with all humble reuerence,
    God by his power and hye magnyfycence
    Made hym a beste, for that he dyd offende
    And so in proces of tyme came to his ende

    Alexander the great and myghty conquerour
    To whome all the worlde scantly myght suffyse
    Of Grece was the origynall lorde and Emperour
    And all the worlde subdued as I surmyse
    Yet hath he done as is the comon gyse
    Left all behynde, for nought coude hym defende
    But as a symple man at the last came to his ende

    The myghty Cresus with his kyngdomes and store
    Of golde and ryches hym selfe coude nat content
    But whyle he trustyd and laboured for more
    Fortune hym fayled: So lost he his intent.
    What shall I wryte of Cyrus excellent
    Drynkynge his blode by deth whiche fortune sende
    To here of states the comon deth and ende

    All kyngdomes dekay and all estate mundayne

    Sorry for my english.

  4. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for this informative post. I appreciate your no-nonsense, historical way of dealing with the matter. Could you possibly help me out with information on one of the trumps in this deck? I'd love to know whether it has Justice in it; if so, does she have sword, scales and crown (just as most of the other Justice cards do). Also, what does her Latin inscription say?

    1. Only thirty cards survive, including eight trump cards: the Fool, Emperor, Pope, Chariot, Time, Fortune, Devil, and Star. Seven are described above, and the Fool is discussed in detail in the following post, The Witless Warrior.

      Best regards,

  5. What I find interesting about this is the court cards the Leber-Rouen deck seems to share with the one described by Cicognara, because they show how the concept of "good" and "bad" suits could have been understood as well and badly ruled empires.
    The court cards of each suit seem to have have discernible design to them. The most coherent is the one in swords with Alexander the Great, the queen Thamiris, Marcus Curtius and Scio Dentato (Achilles Romanus) - the theme of supreme bravery connects all those characters.
    The suit of Wands depicts horse-riders: king Ninus, Hippolyta, Castor and Pollux (all of them traditionaly depicted with horses or on horseback; it seems the designer of Cicognara's deck has cut some corners ascribing Castor and Pollux to different cards). These are the "good" suits.
    Among the "bad" ones the more clearly themed sems the suit of cups, which has Sardanapallus (famous for his orgies), Semiramis (depicted in Dante's Inferno among the lustful spirits), Marc Anthony (castigated by Roman historians for his lifestyle during his years with Cleopatra) and Apicius (the famous gourmand). The theme here seems to be "excess".
    What I have trouble with (and this is the reason behind this post) is the suit of coins. The first and the last of the court cards are the least problematic: king Midas and Marcus Crassus (although if the page used to look anything like the one on Leber-Rouen card, it was rather a character holding Crassus' medal than the consul himself; by the way - do you recognize the motive on this card? The motto, as far as I could decipher it, reads "Ex his quantum libet /quilibet summito" - I'm not quite sure how to understand it). The two characters would fit with the theme o "greed". But then the queen is Cleopatra herself, depicted with the medal of Lucretia to ironically point out the former's promiscuity, who would fit better with Marc Anthony in the suit of cups. And the most perplexing is the description of the knight - the (gold-plated) statue like the one of Campidoglio, with imperial eagle on its base. The statue itself depicts Marcus Aurelius, but if the deck's design dates from the times of Julius II, it could have been alleged to depict Constantine. Either way, I can't see how any of those should fit within a "bad" suit, especially the one depicting "greed" of rulers. Or could it be that it's about the golden statue itself, and not the one it commemorates?
    Please, share your thoughts on all this.