— Matthew 7:13-14.
From at least the late 14th or early 15th century, illuminated cycles of St. John's Apocalypse conventionally included images of Death, the Devil, the Fall of Babylon with shattered towers and fire from heaven, the Star of the Second Advent, the darkened Moon and Sun, angels, resurrection, the Last Judgment, the Risen Christ (often with attributes of the Passion and the symbols of the Evangelists), and the New World or New Jerusalem. In other words, the subject matter of Tarot’s highest trumps was standard stuff. Moreover, it was obviously appropriate subject matter with which to conclude a moral allegory. (As always, a sober look at the Tarot trump subjects tends to make occultist claims about the mysterious Major Arcana seem stupid; and just as dim-witted are the silly secrets “discovered” today by online Tarot enthusiasts.) Such Apocalyptic cycles are commonly associated with late-medieval and Renaissance works from Europe. However, the following devotional print with the same elements is from 19th-century Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania German print is from the Library of Congress, and appeared in Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States (1997) by Vincent Virga. Highlighted elements of the image above include a personified Death, the Devil, a Star (over the head of the Resurrected Christ, symbolizing the Second Coming), Moon and Sun, trumpeting angels of the Last Resurrection, and Christ in an aureole. The entire top panel, New Jerusalem, is cognate to the New World of Tarot. The only missing subject from the highest trumps is Fire/Lightning/Tower, which in many Apocalyptic cycles refers to the Fall of Babylon. Here instead we have the Whore of Babylon, who comes before the destruction and leads her followers to perdition. The main point of posting this print is to emphasize that these subjects were not only commonplace before Tarot was created but also remained traditional for centuries afterward, because they were taken directly from the Bible.
A number of variants were created over the many decades of the print’s popularity, and at least a half dozen versions can be found online. In its various incarnations the print was given different names, including Paths to Heaven and Hell, Roads to Heaven and Hell, Eternal Life and Eternal Damnation, New Jerusalem, Ascensions, Three Paths, and Two Paths. Most were in German, and most were printed in Pennsylvania although some were also made in Europe. The prints depicted a popular religious theme, the narrow gate and steep rocky path or stairway to Heaven as opposed to the wide gate and comfortable stroll to Hell.
A more literal and memorable depiction would be difficult to create. This was a popular subject long before this family of prints began. For example, in the 17th century Cornelis de Bie painted The Narrow Gate to Heaven and the Wide Gate to Hell (right). A more complicated allegory of the Two Gates, also from the 19th century, is shown at Getty Images. However, in general terms this is the same theme as the ancient pre-Christian Choice of Hercules. Variations on the Two Paths theme were always popular. It is the point of every illustration of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven) or Judgment scene with Hell and Heaven. (The natural placement of Christ top-center, dressed for the Passion and in an aureole, and the conventional placement of the Devil and Hell lower-right, is reminiscent of innumerable Judgment scenes.) This idea of two paths is implicit in every contemptu mundi renunciation of this world for the next.
The most interesting aspect of this particular design may be the conflation of two different themes. The primary subject of the Narrow and Wide Gates is merged, rather awkwardly, with the Wise and Foolish Virgins. This makes the result a bit confusing, with three paths instead of two.
In some of the examples, like that shown above, the secondary motif is perfectly clear. The five figures on the steep path hold lighted lamps, while the five figures on the middle path have no oil, a direct reference to the perennially popular Wise and Foolish Virgins. As with the many variations in Tarot, some later designers failed to understand the significance of certain details, and/or inserted their own ideas. The 1924 English version of the print, (below), failed to recognize the significance of the 5/5 structure, thereby losing some of the original design integrity. Nonetheless, the basic idea of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is still apparent, and one of the figures still asks for oil, making the meaning perfectly clear although not nearly as well illustrated. (As I have argued for over ten years now, it is the conflation of two different but related themes that makes the cyclic meaning of highest trump subjects difficult to see and understand.)
Another element, however, has been added to the group on the steep and rocky path. It is a detail which indicates the social consciousness of the printmaker. The ranks of the saved include a man, a woman, and an African American. This is fascinating given the fact that race relations in the U.S. had deteriorated greatly in the decades following the Civil War, and the early 1920s, when this print was made, were arguably the low point. In any case, the English version of the print, although suffering corruptions (such as the loss of the Advent Star, which is missing from most prints), explains the design for those who don’t read Fraktur German.
This all assumes a natural reading of the subjects, interpretations in keeping with their authentic historical context. This is a narrow approach and a demanding one, with many inherent constraints. Deconstruction and revisioning in a
false preferred context is an endlessly more accommodating approach, where one interpretation is as valued as another. It will be left for other, more “dedicated” Tarot enthusiasts to explain the Kabbalistic secrets of these prints, their alchemical symbolism, initiatory use as tracing boards, numerological codes and geometric mysteries, their derivation from Chess, and so on ad nauseum. There are many who use that gate and follow that path, and they are welcome to it.