Today we are going to talk about trees. No, seriously! Usually, if a Tarot geek talks about trees it is likely to be some drivel about the Qabalistic Tree of Life, or perhaps the Hanged Man as Odin, tied to the World Tree Yggdrasil.(1) It’s easy, but stupid. (Stupid, that is, unless talking about 20th-century decks and 19th-century meanings.)
Another approach might be patronymic identification, i.e., my name is Hurst.
hurst, n. wooded hill.
Hurst: topographic surname for someone who lived on or by a wooded hill, or a habitational surname from one of the locations named Hurst.
Etymology: Old English hyrst < Middle High German hurst, “woodland”.
But that’s a bit too broad. It’s just... trees.
Admittedly, those trees are by Rembrandt and Van Gogh... but no. Not that kind of trees. I’m referring to allegorical trees. Tarot is a Triumph of Death, so we want some of that. The lowest trumps are a Ranks of Man motif, so something like estates and conditions is important. The middle trumps are a De Casibus or Wheel of Fortune cycle, so we need the life of Man too. And the highest trumps are about Christian eschatology, so there should be something about the Last Judgment, or similar triumph over death. What are the chances that we can find one of those kinds of allegory in a tree?
Let’s start with an allegorical conflation(2) which embodies all the main themes of Tarot in one neat package, from about the same period when Tarot first became popular. I talked about this one back in 2010, comparing it to a few other complex moral allegories.
Fortune and Death
Master of the Banderoles, c.1450-1475
Here we have a tree of estates, precariously situated in a boat, (with its trunk being gnawed by vermin, Dies and Nox, representing Time), in which the people are being used for target practice by Death. Christ (holding the banner of resurrection) has blind Fortuna turning her Wheel of Fortune to throw people off into the grave while a monk displays the author’s message, right in the middle of the picture. Pretty sweet but, before we get to more allegories of this sort, let’s start at the beginning where the Tree of Life and Tree of Death have their Christian origins.
§1. The Tree of Knowledge
Everyone knows the story of Eden, but here’s a 14th-century recapitulation.
Creation and Fall from Grace
Holkham Picture Bible, c.1327-1335
Expulsion and First Death
Holkham Picture Bible, c.1327-1335
The Fall of Man, from the creation of Adam and Eve through the Expulsion from Eden and the first death, Cain killing Abel, is the canonical genesis of Christian mythology and the explicit or implicit background for virtually all macabre allegory, medieval and early modern. The most famous work of the macabre genre was Holbein’s Danse Macabre. In Holbein, and most versions after him, there were four scenes introducing the Dance of Death proper: Creation, Temptation, Expulsion, and the world of work and death.
Economy of Salvation
The essence of God's plan for man’s salvation involves four elements: 1) mankind's fall from Grace; 2) Christ's redeeming sacrifice on the Cross; 3) mankind's faith and good works; and finally 4) our resurrection to Judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
“The economy of salvation refers to God’s activity in creating and governing the world, particularly with regard to his plan for the salvation of the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ....”
More concretely, Man was created in a state of Grace but pissed it away, hence the need for salvation. God did his part by taking human form and dying on the Cross, making mankind eligible for salvation. Man must still do his part by having faith in Christ’s sacrifice (and the larger scheme of things) and by following Christ’s example, i.e., faith and works. Ultimately, God will resurrect us all to our reward in Heaven, or punishment in Hell.
The first, second, and fourth elements are mythological. That is, taken literally they are cosmic bullshit. Metaphorically, they can be interpreted as meaning that we’re all bozos on this bus, but we should try not to act like it ’cause God’s watching. They provide a rationale, an argument about why we should be good: we (Adam) fucked up; we have a second chance (via Christ); we will be judged (dies irae); therefore, we should be good. Being good – faith and good works – implies the details (the “what”) of the moral injunction (the “why”) implied by the other three.
Faith can be understood (charitably) as accepting that this is a good idea, that we should take the moral teachings of Jesus as our guide. At its core, this implies a value judgment regarding things of this world versus the Kingdom of God: “No servant can serve two masters.... You cannot serve God and mammon.” “And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Regarding the invisible hand of the marketplace: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
Contemptu fucking mundi.
And the rest of the week, too.
Good works can be taken (charitably) as The Golden Rule: “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” (Note that Jesus himself is quoted here as offering a very charitable reading of the Old Testament.)
The Golden Rule is a corollary of the injunction to “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. Jesus said to follow his example: “Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and slander you.” The economy of salvation encompasses these moral teachings of Jesus, but mainly it provides their cosmic/mythic rationale.
In Christian mythology, the Fall of Man is the genesis of Death’s sovereignty over Man. (The final image in the popular Holbein tradition also came from the Bible: Christ in Judgment over resurrected Mankind.) The Fall and Judgment pertain to both sacred and so-called profane or secular art. For example, the Fall of Man and the Resurrection to Judgment sometimes bracket the Life of Christ cycle, based on the Bible, and the Danse Macabre, allegorical fiction, with equal appropriateness, even necessity. The Christian economy of salvation is the explicit or implicit context of all such moral allegory as well as spanning the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
The main body of the Dance of Death consists of exemplary figures from the ranks of mankind, usually with the Pope and Emperor at the top and some assortment of lower-ranked figures. Among the lowest are often women and children, sinners and fools. The point is not any particular individual but all of them, all ranks, estates, and conditions, as representatives of the collective Mankind. The representatives could be many or few. Sometimes only two contrasting examples were used, (youth and old age, wealth and poverty, sceptre/monarch and spade/peasant, etc.), using merism to represent all. Pope and Emperor by themselves, or with a less exalted figure, also represent all mankind. So does Adam.
Apart from its use as a name, in Hebrew “adam” means man or mankind, while “adama” means “ground” or “earth”. (Some writers claim that “adam” derives from Sanskrit word “adima”, meaning "progenitor" or "first".) The use of Adam (mankind) in Genesis is one of numerous biblical examples of an aptronym, or "label name". Aptronyms are the essence of medieval allegory and morality plays. For example, the character named Everyman in The Somonyng of Everyman represents every man. (Other characters in that play include God, along with Death, Fellowship, Kindred, Strength, Beauty, Knowledge, Goods, Good Deeds, etc.) In Genesis, this indicates that the character Adam is both the literal ancestor of mankind and the allegorical representative of all men. That is why we all merit punishment for Adam’s Original Sin.
Death and the Fool (Everyman)
Albrecht Durer, Brandt’s Ship of Fools, 1494
This identification of Adam with Everyman, and with the Ranks of Man motif, is what makes sense of the Tree of Estates being combined with Death. It is all part of God’s grotesque plan, as shown in the complex print by the Master of the Banderoles. That print takes the Fall for granted, along with Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the ultimate resurrection to Judgment. The composition only alludes to them indirectly, while focusing on Fortune and Death, but the larger mythic framework is inescapable in the 15th-century European milieu. We’ll get back to that Tree of Estates with Death motif, but first....
§2. The Tree of Death
There is a simpler version of Mankind with Death. We’ve seen that the Tree of Knowledge, with Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, symbolized how death entered the world, in contrast to the Tree of Life. Usually, however, images of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden do not include any overt representation of death. The idea is implicit: “the wages of sin is death”. However, explicit depictions of death were sometimes included. This could be Death personified as a skeleton, or indicated by a corpse at the feet of Adam and Eve, (presumably their second son Abel, the first human fatality), or even a skeletal Grim Reaper. The corpse tradition appeared in a number of manuscripts of the popular, frequently illustrated City of God, by Saint Augustine. Placing some symbol of death in the garden began in illuminated manuscripts and continues today.
Again, keep in mind that there was no Reaper in the Garden of Eden. Nor was there a corpse lying at the feet of Adam and Eve, or an animated skeleton lurking in ambush with a deadly dart. These are still religious works, certainly, but the explicit inclusion of Death or the dead turns the Fall of Man from a literal work to an allegorical one. The image becomes more of a memento mori meditation than a biblical illustration. Adam and Eve become another couple in the universal Danse Macabre, avatars of Mankind, and as posed by Cornelis van Haarlem they even appear to be dancing. Conversely, a more canonical illustration might have Eve talking to the Serpent while Adam talks to God, naming the plants and animals.
Adam and Eve in the Garden
Junius Manuscript, ca.930-960
§3. A More Stylish Tree of Death
Some of the most iconic and artistically appealing examples of Death in the Garden of Eden come from the mid-16th century, from Barthel and Sebald Beham. A 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve, (right), by Albrecht Durer, was influential on these designs. The Beham brothers then cleverly integrated the tree with a skeleton representing Death personified. Many copies were made by other engravers over the years.
As an aside: no, I don’t know why Adam holds the flaming sword in one of the designs. However, this has been suggested by one writer:
Although Goddard (following the over-interpretive, Augustinian studies of Hieatt) asserts that Adam is an equal partner of Eve in Original Sin, this view is negated by the following visual elements in the print: the placement of Adam on the favorable side of the image in contrast to Eve's inferior, sinister placement; Adam's reception of the apple from the hand of Eve on "her" side; the inclination of the head of the skeleton towards Eve, considered by theologians to be the more susceptible victim of temptation; and by the flaming sword in Adam's right hand, the signal of eventual divine justice against the apple of sin in his left hand (significant choice of sides once again).
The Print Collector's Newsletter, v.19, p.215, 1988.
My reply is, meh – whatever. Still, it’s a better explanation that none at all. (Some of the arguments obviously do not hold for the reversed copies, but copyists are not designers.)
A striking variation on this motif (suitable for that new tattoo you’ve been wanting) was created by Jost Amman in 1580. It was one of his illustrations for Jacob Rueff’s De conceptu et generatione hominis (1st ed. 1554), a book on midwifery.
Okay, I said we would return to the Tree of Estates besieged by Death, and we will... but not today. Well, maybe just one.
Tree of Estates, Attacked by Death
Wilhelm Werner von Zimmern, Zimmernscher Totentanz, c.1575.
This is obviously a copy of the design by the Master of the Banderoles, a century earlier. A cleric presents the author’s message, while Death stands over a corpse. The pestilential Dies and Nox (i.e., Time) gnaw at the base of the tree, while Death picks off people one by one. However, notice that the estates in this tree have the Emperor in the top echelon and the Pope in the second tier, as opposed to the arrangement in the Master of the Banderoles design. Perhaps the secular powers are being raised above the religious. Conversely, perhaps the Pope’s placement at the center of the tree is intended to convey his central importance, the rest of society being arrayed around him. The change is interesting in any case.
✎ 1. The usual “trigger warning” applies here for the intellectually disadvantaged: occasional mockery of New Age woo-woo and crackpot theories will be indulged. This is not a “safe space” for stupid.
✎ 2. Some definitions:
• mash-up, n. 1. A mixture or fusion of disparate elements. (Added to OED in 2006.) This can take endlessly varied forms today. It may refer to a casual blending of iconic characters for a cosplay mashup. It may refer to blending multiple pieces of music into an aesthetically pleasing whole. It might be the merging of two genre into a comic like Cowboys and Aliens. It can be carefully arranged or very loosely thrown together – a mere hodge-podge.
• hodge-podge, n. 1. A dish made of a mixture of various kinds of meat, vegetables, etc., stewed together; 2. contemptuous. A clumsy or slap-dash mixture of ingredients. 3. a heterogeneous mass or agglomeration; a medley, farrago, gallimaufrey. 4. quasi-adv. In confusion, promiscuously.
• conflation, n. 1. The action of blowing or fusing together; composition or blending of different things into a whole. Also concr., the result of such composition. 2. The combination or fusion of two variant readings of a text into a composite reading. Also concr., a reading which results from such mixture of variants.
• In other words, mash-up is vaguely defined; hodge-podge is a sloppy mess; conflation implies the presence of a unifying design. The Master of the Banderoles conflated motifs to create his meditation on Fortune and Death.