Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Complex Wheel of Fortune

Here is a 15th-century Wheel of Fortune with a very complex design. The following description is from Mitchell B. Merback's 1999 The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel.

Reynard the Fox as Pope and Antichrist
Colored woodcut, German (c.1470-80)

Visually anchored by an allegorical wheel held by a Lady Fortune who doubles as a personfication of Patience (Gedultikeyt), the woodcut also includes personifications of Virtues and Vices, and animal imagery derived from the legends of Reinecke Fuchs (a.k.a. Reynard the Fox), Isengrim the Wolf and Braun the Bear. Here Reynard, the medieval trickster and folk hero, plays the role of Pope and Antichrist and is seated in mock majesty at the apex of Fortune's wheel; he is flanked by a treacherous 'Dominican wolf' and a 'Franciscan bear', who are in turn flanked by personifications of Arrogance and Envy on horseback. Counselling patience in the face of Rome's oppression -- equated with the Antichrist's reign -- and promising a 'Secret Revelation' (Geheimen Offenbarung) that will overthrow it, the broadsheet uses the rota to explode the vain pretensions of universal papal power, showing that its days are numbered. 'Constancy' (Stetikeit) plays the role of the vanquished, sprawled out upon the lower rim of the wheel and clutching at its spoke. Although we know that Fortune's wheel will eventually turn to overthrow Vice and redeem Virtue, the body of Constancy, overwhelmed by the monstrous device, is distorted, emaciated and weakened to the point of death. The message of patience and hope addressed to the viewer must therefore struggle against the undeniable concreteness of the body's vertical subjection. Will this wheel ever turn at all? Oddly, it has no mechanical axis, but is supported entirely by the figures of Patience (Fortune), Love and Humility (personified as a Samaritan monk and a Beguine). While the two kneeling figures attempt to effect its rotation, Fortune herself, blindfolded and aloof, grasps the upper spokes with two hands and stands motionless. In fact, she strikes the same pose as the medieval executioner who brings the torture-wheel down on a supine, immobilized body!

In terms of Tarot, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this broadsheet is the way in which multiple meanings were layered across a conventional foundation, in this case, the Wheel of Fortune. Also noteworthy is the pre-Reformation use of the papal tiara to create an anti-Catholic allegory.

Merback's book is a useful antidote for those Tarot enthusiasts who insist that the Hanged Man is some sort of charming New Age "reversal of one's worldview" or other anachronistic nonsense. Prolonged, public, and unimaginably painful forms of execution, including the so-called Jewish Execution and the Visconti inverted hanging for traitors, were relatively common. Breaking on the Wheel was probably the most characteristic, but other practices, such as gibbiting, were sometimes used. Merback's descriptions of death by the cross and the wheel are indicative of what the Hanged Man card actually depicted, the slow and horrific execution of a traitor.

For the analysis of Reynard's Wheel, Merback cites Wolfgang Harms, "Reinhart Fuchs als Papst und Antichrist auf dem Rad der Fortuna," (Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 6, 1972, 418-440). Harms may have been the first scholar to address this pictorial branch of Reynard's history.

11/22/09 P.S. (revised 4/5/10)
A closely related image comes from a 14th-century French manuscript of Jacquemart Gielée's Renart le Nouvel. It is listed as Français 1581 in the BNF Département des Manuscrits, Division occidentale. Patricia M. Gathercole, ("Illustrations for the 'Roman de Renart': Manuscripts BN fr. 1581 and BN fr. 12584", Gesta, 10:1, 1971, 39-44), described the illustration as follows:

The famous Wheel of Fortune is given an original portrayal on folio 57 of MS fr. 1581. On this manuscript Lady Fortune, wearing a long orange gown stands behind the wheel and turns it with her hands. Three representations of the fox are at the top: they are dominated by a Renart, who with cape and crown presides in glory. Human figures, straddling the sides, attempt to stay on the wheel. One slides down, the other rises; they represent the specific qualities of justice and industry. The four figures placed around the wheel form a coherent conceptual whole. In the lower left-hand corner is seated a woman who holds a cross. This is Charity (Caritas) as the inscription states, and as is indicated by her gesture of releasing coins recalling the Roman personification of Largitas. In the lower right-hand corner sits Humilitas, a figure concealed by coverings. Riding horseback in the two upper corners are the opposing sins of Pride (a man) and greed (a woman).

Reynard on the Wheel of Fortune
Renart le Nouvel, French (c.1290-1300)

The later German design is obviously based upon this precise tradition. Also note how the naked figure at the bottom of the Wheel, holding the scales of Justice, is opposed to Reynard enthroned at the top; social injustice is at the center of this Wheel of Fortune. The following explanation of Reynard, being crowned by Fortuna, is from Kenneth Varty's 2000 Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, in the Couronnement de Renart, the fox will be proclaimed king with the approval of the dying king, Nobel, carried off by Pride, Envy, and Renardie (=cunning), a symbolic fable like Branch XI and Reinhart Fuchs because it depicts what could happen at the court of Flanders if law and order were not restored; a fable that castigates a world where the old virtues are dead, where egoistic ambition, treachery and hypocrisy triumph, and where the author, a moralist like Heinrich stands up in accordance with a well-established tradition against the vices of the century. And at the end of this same century, in Renart le Nouvel, Renart dreams of killing the king in order to mount his throne (lines 2,278-87), and Noble separates himself from God by forming an alliance with Renart; and then leaves his place to Renart who is crowned by Fortuna. Renart le Nouvel is a fable in which Jacquemart Gielée shows how the fox succeeds by his cunning in dominating the world: it is a cry of alarm, as was Reinhart Fuchs, to rouse the world to beware of the evil that corrupts the times.

3/31/10 P.S.
Two other complex Wheels of Fortune can be related to the above designs. The first is much earlier and simpler than the image from Merback, but relatively close in provenance to the Renart le Nouvel illustration. It is from a 1323 Festal Missal, (Amiens, France), and contains the core elements of the more complex designs. Two wheels are shown, one with Reynard in four guises and a matching one with human figures. The human wheel indicates the estates of man in the same fashion as the two wheels above. That is, the topmost figure is crowned, the cleric holds a cup, and the peasant holds a sickle.

Mmm... Marginalia: Wheel of Reynard

The second example is from two centuries later, about 1525, and although it contains some of the same elements, (including Reynard and the Wheel of Fortune, a ranks of man, and a disparaging view of authority figures), the overall design is much different.

The design is attributed to Dürer (although his monogram is absent), but based on an earlier tapestry, and the prints are referred to as the Michelfeld(t) Tapestry or the Allegory of Social Injustice. The wheel, turned by Time (Zeit) and Reynard (Fuchs), is the first of six images across three woodcuts. The last image, Eternal Providence, also carries a cyclic message, loosely translated as "what goes around, comes around", thematically connecting back to the Wheel.

  1. The Wheel of Fortune w/birds, turned by Time and Cunning/Deceit
  2. The Ranks of Mankind
  3. Justice, Truth, and Reason in stocks
  4. Fraud/Deceit enthroned and Piety bound in cradle
  5. Schoolmaster and Cleric learning from Deceit
  6. Eternal Providence warns about karma

On the first print, the Wheel of Fortune is being turned by Time (who traditionally turns Fortune's Wheel, cf. Ripa), and a fox (a deceitful trickster, namely Reynard), who symbolizes the characteristic injustice of the outcome. A peacock stands before the 6-spoked wheel, perhaps representing the most noble of birds at the bottom flanked by eagle and falcon. Clockwise from lower left, an eagle, jay, magpie, pheasant, and falcon are on the wheel, with the obnoxious magpie as king. The five figures to the right include a peasant, craftsman, ermine-caped noble, merchant, and knight.

On the second print, Deceit is enthroned with the infant Piety bound and asleep at his feet. Between the ranks of man and Deceit are three women in stocks: Justice, Truth (with a padlock on her lips), and Reason. On the third print a schoolmaster and a cleric are approaching Deceit. The schoolman's ribbon says, "Lord, we are listening to your oration, we crave to attend your school". The fat cleric, carrying a girdle book/Bible, looks back at the final figure, a bearded man with flaming eyes, who is identified as Eternal Providence. (His fiery eyes are reminiscent of Dürer works such as Sol Iustitiae and the Apocalyptic Christ, whose "eyes were as a flame of fire".) Providence has a looped ribbon over his head, and his arms are folded in a similar Möbius-like fashion. The message reads, "Everything that goes out now re-enters the source from which it flowed. I am Eternal Providence."

Like the earlier examples of Reynard and the Wheel of Fortune, we see an explicit reference to all classes of society being corrupt, and we see assorted other allegorical figures being merged into a novel design. Older conventional motifs are reworked and combined into more complex allegories. In this case, although not as neatly hierarchical as the Tarot trump cycle, we do see the same three categories of subject matter: representatives of man, allegorical figures per se, and an unusual but clearly Christian dénouement. Another example of Divine Providence triumphing over Fortune is shown in a postscript to the A Florentine Allegory of the Lord's Mercy post, taken from Jehan Cousin's 1568 emblem book, The Book of Fortune. Rather than Providence being a male figure with the fiery eyes of the Apocalyptic Christ, it was depicted via a female figure with papal tiara.

Eternal Providence
“What Goes Around, Comes Around”

Proverb: “What goes around, comes around.”
1. The status eventually returns to its original value after completing some sort of cycle.
(Cf. "history repeats itself".)
2. A person's actions, whether good or bad, will often have consequences for that person.
(Cf. karma.)

Some sources for the Michelfeldt Tapestry images and translations include the Catalogue of Early German and Flemish Woodcuts (1903); Dover's The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer (1963); Dürer and His Culture (1998), Chapter 4. "The Michelfeldt Tapestry and Contemporary European Literature: Moral Lessons on the Rule of Deceit"; and Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (2008), as well as the Tapisserie von Michelfeld page at Zeno.org.


  1. Hello Michael,

    Sorry to bother you but, can you point out the provenance of the small image in your post? I mean the one with the three wheels...

    Thanks in advance,


  2. It's one of several such images reproduced in Merback's book. I believe that it may be the first one described in the following passage, (fol. 280r, one of a pair of illustrations from the Luzerner Chronik), but I don't have the book at hand.

    "Judging from the numerous depictions of the procedure which survive from this period, the method for breaking a man with the wheel was fairly standardized, though the procedure and its incidentals could vary. Here I reproduce two illustrations from diverse sources: the first is a miniature by the Swiss illuminator Diebold Schiling, one of several execution images included in the lavish Luzerner Chronik of 1509-13 (illus. 46); the second is a broadsheet relating to the punishment of a murderer in Mainz, published by the Magdeburg Briefmaler Leonhard Gerhart in 1572 (ilus. 64). Both corroborate written descriptions like the one penned by Antonio de Beatis for the travelogue of Cardinal Luigi of Aragorn (in the epigraph at the start of this chapter). First the victim was stretched out and secured with ropes staked into the ground; alternatively, the performance could take place upon the 'raven's stone' (Rabenstein), an elevated masonry platform covered with earth or grass, erected outside the city walls. Wooden slats were then placed under the wrists, elbows, ankles, knees, and hips. Occasionally, as in Gerhart's woodcut, we see the slats pre-assembled into a gridwork, over which the body is lain. Once the victim is immobilized, the executioner would begin fracturing the bones of the arms and legs, aiming his blows between the slats with a large wooden cartwheel, sometimes fitted with iron treads or a cutting blade. Some law codes stipulated that the wheel, like the hanging rope, be unused, but the reasons for this remain obscure. Outside Germany, in Latin and Gallic Europe, an iron rod or mace sometimes replaced the wheel as a bludgeon.

    "Laws codes made some attempt to calibrate the number of blows required to bring the condemned man 'from life to death' (vom Leben zum Tod); and hangmen's bills, dating from a slightly later period, reveal that there were two standard procedures for breaking the body. Sentencing formulas could speak of breaking 'from below' or breaking 'from above', and could add to either of these the stipulation 'alive'. 'From below' was surely the cruelest: the executioner began with blows to the shin and thigh bones, working his way up to the chest, where a severe blow to the heart could be delivered as a coup de grace."

    There are some interesting illustrations online. My favorite is the first one, a fully adjustable machine for efficiently handling quantity business.





  3. There are a couple other images of breaking with the wheel from the Luzerner Chronik at Wikipedia, but not this particular one.


  4. Thanks Michael,

    Those are great images indeed!

    I am still at odds wit the exact function the wheel itself had in the torture process. The text seems to suggest that they used the actual wheel to... give blows? “aiming his blows between the slats with a large wooden cartwheel”. Further readings on line are confusing, since they include horses and the like into the mix.

    Thanks again!


  5. Hi, Enrique,

    The wheel had two functions, both of them depicted in that illustration. First, it was used as a bludgeon to break the long bones of the arms and legs, (and sometimes the spine or the rib cage). This is the function that Merback is referring to when describing the way Fortune holds the wheel in the German woodcut: "she strikes the same pose as the medieval executioner who brings the torture-wheel down on a supine, immobilized body".

    Second, the ruined arms and legs were then twisted around the spokes and tied in place. The victim might still be alive or already dead at this point, depending on the exact nature of the punishment and the strength of the victim. In this second capacity, the wheel was used to display the victim publicly, as a semi-permanent warning to others. The cross, the wheel, the gibbit, and ordinary hanging were all sometimes used for display of the dying, then dead and rotting criminal. Birds would peck out the eyes and scavenge the other choice bits, and eventually there would be little left, but the message was still clear -- this jurisdiction has justice.


  6. You might want to read the post, L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus. Here are a few lines from the poem:

    As to the flesh that we too well have fed,
    Tis all devoured and rotted, shred by shred.

    The rain has soaked us, washed us: skies
    Of hot suns blacken us, scorch us: crows
    And magpies have gouged out our eyes,
    Plucked at our beards, and our eyebrows.


  7. Thanks Michael, that clarifies a lot.

    The Ballade is great indeed. It is a powerful poem, specially if one puts it in context. I am fascinated by the illustration.

    Thanks again,


  8. Hi, Enrique,

    The illustration is revealing, showing corpses in different states of decay. There is a great page of sketches by Pisanello, preparatory for his St George in Verona painting, that shows four views of a newly hung criminal and two views of an older, withered and also apparently bloated figure.


    A version of that page of sketches, along with many other related images, are shown on page #4 of my Hanged Man thread at Aeclectic, along with some detail pictures from Pisanello's St. George painting.


  9. Yes! I remember that thread. Thanks.

    These drawings are powerful (as well as the ones made by Leonardo, featuring punctilious notes on the victim’s clothing. There is something a little bit unsettling about describing a corpse as one would describe a landscape, but I guess we have grown even more used to that these days thanks to all of our forensic T.V. shows!)

    Interestingly -to me at least- is the fact that the common man’s reaction to that card is pretty much in tune with the gruesomeness these sketches -Pisanello et all- depict, even when in most TdM cards the image is certainly not as naturalistic. This makes the new-ager’s discourse on the image feel as a cognitive dissonance to them.

    Thanks very much.


  10. Hi, Michael,

    Thanks a lot for such an insightful article. I even think it is an essential key for understanding Tarot trump cycle as a whole.

    Wheel of Reynard (from a 1323 Festal Missal) reminds me a Wheel of fortune with its animals of the standard Marseille pattern deck.