Monday, September 2, 2013

Perverse Meaning in Art

What does it mean? What is “the meaning of Tarot”? It is a simple question but vague, as demonstrated by the countless, extravagantly varied answers which have been offered. Writers in various branches of philosophy, in linguistics, semiotics, pragmatics, hermeneutics, literary criticism, and other fields have developed theories of meaning for assorted purposes. Often they involve elaborate, highly specialized jargon. These modern theories of meaning, whichever may be currently fashionable, are often appealed to by writers in an analysis of some particular text or image, perhaps a sculpture or a social custom, to divine its meaning. In most cases, common sense and historical context are rigorously avoided.

Historically, European art tended to be didactic or devotional. It had a meaning which was pretty clear to anyone of that time and place. There were, of course, decorative arts and embellishments, but anything significant was meaningful, usually conveying some moral lesson. During the Renaissance, mythological subjects were used allegorically to convey conventionalized Christian themes. Also at that time, portrait paintings by great masters became popular. This was a step in the direction of art for art’s sake. The popularity of landscapes and genre scenes was a later development. Occasionally they were allegorical, but in general terms their meaning was simply an artistic depiction of the subject, as with portraits. Modern art, in the sense of abstract or non-representational works, abandons even that meaning in favor of pretentious play. This simplistic path from Peter Comestor’s quasi libri laicorum to Umberto Eco’s “open works” is a useful outline for thinking about meaning in works of art.

Modern exegetes take many different approaches to understanding and misunderstanding antique art and its meaning. A great example is provided by this spectacularly beautiful genre painting, Woman at the Piano, by the impressionist Renoir.

To any reasonable person, the subject of this painting is rather fully encompassed by its traditional title: Woman at the Piano. For anyone who admires the (cloying) art of Renoir, this is a brilliant example of art for art’s sake. The subject matter and the execution of the work combine to evoke a pleasurable response. There is no need for complex exegesis; surely none was intended; and any such attempt can only diminish one’s understanding and appreciation of the work itself. However, not everyone is that reasonable. To exemplify the unreasonable, we will quote from the “Introduction” to James Elkins’ Why are our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity. His view of iconography, one in which anything goes, renders the field worthless. However, his initial example demonstrates why such relentless relativism is untenable and even embarrassing.

At first nothing could be more charming than Renoir’s Woman at the Piano, painted in 1875. The nameless woman plays quietly, almost dispassionately, her fingers placed lightly on the keys. It’s a popular image, and for many people it is refreshing and innocent: I can imagine the liquid motions of the pianist’s hands (or at least one of them – her left hand is just a blur), the fluent sounds of Saint-Saëns or Chopin, the flowery breeze, and the compassionate, fatherly eye of the painter.
If the painting is beautiful, it is because we can let ourselves drift into the swirl of a slightly meaningless reverie. If it is treacly or a little nauseating, it is because we cannot follow Renoir into the damper recesses of his feminine devotions. Either way, the painting is nothing but the purest, most sincere portrait of a certain sense of music, and a certain hope for what women might be. People who love Renoir also tend to be absorbed in the sheer luxury of it all. “The focus is so soft,” observes one historian, “that one can just make out that the piano stool is apparently upholstered in a flowered wool challis (or perhaps silk), and the diaphanous fabric of the dress – mouselline de soie, possible mull – is beautifully realized with its black ribbon banding and blue underdress.” If any painting is forthright, this one is: it wears its allegiances on its sleeve, and makes no secret of its happy, somewhat humorless pleasures.
Perhaps the painting is fundamentally a “dazzlingly painted” exercise in synesthesia. I would prefer to see it as a psychologically suspect, partly unintended expression of desire – more like the beginning of a confession than a dream. Other historians might rather explain it as a sign of its times: as a bourgeois utopia or an emblem of middle-class aspirations. Still others might say that it is just another sign of Renoir’s odd inability to make contact with the more interesting artistic themes of the 1870s. No matter which narrative we choose to tell, the painting remains fairly simple. It never loses its straightforwardness, even if it comes to seem a bit unfortunate or misguided.

In fairness to the artist, (and most of mankind), simplicity, along with other bourgeois sensibilities and aspirations, need not be the unambiguous insults which pretentious elites assume.

But art history has learned to find dense complexity in even the most simpleminded picture. Consider another interpretation of the same painting: this one from Birger Carlström’s Hide-and-Seek, a monograph devoted to exposing the Impressionists as political pamphleteers. In Carlström’s version of history, painters from Gainsborough onward made use of their newly liberated techniques to secrete hidden political slogans in their paintings. Each artist had different concerns, and they used their pictures as platforms, telegraphing their messages at unsuspecting audiences.
Renoir, it seems, was particularly obsessed with the politics of the Panama and Suez canals.

At this point, Elkins presents some details of Carlström’s various claims regarding Renoir’s Young Girl Reading, Portrait of Marie Goujon, and Umbrellas. We will omit them, but it is immediately apparent that something is wrong. Carlström may be insane, implausibly dim-witted or naive, blinded by an idée fixe or theoretical obsession, perpetrating a grandiose prank, or perhaps merely indifferent to any historical intent which could be justifiably attributed to the works(1). In that regard, Carlström seems like a typical Tarot enthusiast: it is difficult to be certain whether they are sincere crackpots or trolls with too much time on their hands. Can anyone be this pathologically misguided?

In other paintings Carlström finds evidence that Renoir was angry at Russia and Austria for their treatment of Poland, that he was upset at France for its liberal policy about immigration, and that he was disappointed in Napoleon III. In Woman at the Piano, Carlström sees the Isthmus of Panama in the houseplant at the upper left. One twig that lies at an angle is the “black line where the canal is to go,” and he reads the letters PAN and COL for the cities of Panama and Colon at opposites ends of the canal. The canal is drawn a little inaccurately, Carlström says: “the Isthmus of Panama goes a little more west-east, than what Renoir has put it out here”; but it doesn’t matter, because Renoir has written the essential message across the middle of his cryptic map: “TAC = BANG.” The entire scandal, Carlström says in half-English,

were to degager shortly. And so they were. From c. 1884 Renoir has now told about this project of Panama-canal and he and the French people are now demanding for an open account but in the next year 1889 so it crashed and many people lost their savings. TAC = BANG.
The same painting also depicts Russia’s relations with Poland, which Carlström calls “the Poland-Strangling”:

If we have a look at the light spot to the right just on the piano [at the far right margin of the painting] we can see the head of a bear and the text below it: R LOI A POL, what means RUSSIAN LAW IN POLAND. And if we turn the picture up and down we can also find on this head [i.e., the bear’s head, in the smudge] 19 ANS = 19 YEARS. Yes, in 1869 the Russian started the take-over of the university and then also all the other schools of Poland. That was to start an obliteration of that country and Renoir cannot help telling it over and over again in his works.
And there’s more, because what we have thought to be the music-stool is only another big brown bear.

The discussion of Carlström goes on, but the point should be clear. Both his observations and their interpretation are figments of his odd imagination. Carlström is, as Elkins puts it, hallucinating these details and their meaning.

It’s exhausting, reading these descriptions. And what has become of Renoir’s painting? Once it was a sweetish scene of summertime music-making, and now it is a combination atlas and menagerie, with explosions, strangulations, and festering boils. What was originally the dappled stem of a plant has become a map of Panama. The “flowered wool challis” has become an allegorical bear throttling a doll-like woman. The harmless signature, “Renoir”, has turned into a ripening ulcer. And what’s worst, it seems the interpretation has hardly begun. I can imagine Carlström writing an entire monograph about Woman at the Piano, turning it into an illustrated history of mid-nineteenth century Europe.

Elkins lists four problems with Carlström’s interpretations.

  • We have no independent evidence (from Renoir’s letters, from contemporary critics, from any other Impressionist or Postimpressionist painter, historian, or critic) that Impressionist artists hid messages and images in their Paintings....
  • It may also seem that his interpretations are just too far outside the consensus—too wild, too idiosyncratic to be taken seriously. They don’t connect well—or I should say, at all—with other historian’s concerns, and so in a way they are beside the point....
  • It’s a complementary problem that Carlström’s accounts are too different from one to the next, too unpredictable. He finds stick figures in some pictures and fully-fleshed ‘paintings’ in others. Sometimes he sees letters that many viewers might also see; other times he merely reports on lettering so tiny it does not reproduce. Although most of his readings are political, a few are personal or anecdotal....
  • Perhaps in the end Hide-and-Seek is just too detailed. Woman at the Piano may be just that: a woman, a piano, some music, some lights. Carlström may just be seeing too much, spending too much time looking. It appears that Renoir wanted to create a relatively simple, focused drama—there are no French engineers parading across the painting, no Russian flags flying, no newpapers displaying banner headlines about the destruction of Poland. The painting has very little in it, and even apart from the sheer implausibility of Carlström’s claims, it can seem that he simply says too much.

Anyone familiar with pop-culture Tarot interpretations will recognize the same problems. Whether the claims are traditional silliness (Egyptian, alchemical, numerological, astrological, and the endless other esoteric preoccupations, along with transmission by Albigensians, Templars, Gypsies, and so on), or more recently devised crackpot notions, they all lack supporting evidence. As such, they are beyond the interests of legitimate historians. The third problem, extravagance and incoherence, is almost always present in Tarot theories, along with the fourth – there is no end to the imaginings. It is fair to say that Carlström is either delusional or disingenuous, (Matto or Bagatto to employ the Tarot archetypes, fool or charlatan), and the same is true of most Tarot enthusiasts.

Elkins, however, defends even such indefensible nonsense. He admits that this seems crazy, but he argues that while Carlström is a striking example of such excesses, the criticisms themselves apply to modern art historians in general, and there are no criteria within art history by which Carlström could be dismissed from the fold.

Carlström might well be wrong about Renoir’s intentions, but he is not ‘wrong’ about art history. He is what statisticians call an ‘outlier’: a data point far to one end of the scale, but not off the scale altogether. He is less an eccentric, out of time and place, than a symptom of contemporary art history. The purpose of this book is to understand how pictures drive each of us to behave—more or less, with reserve or abandon, inadvertently or with full awareness—as Carlström does.”

Elkins’ book offers many interesting discussions of pathological interpretations. He is both amazed by some of the bizarre imaginings which have been put forward by art historians in the last century, and yet also sympathetic to the methods employed. To borrow Popper’s term, he finds no criteria of demarcation by which to distinguish between legitimate and bogus interpretations. Even the most plainly perverse readings, such as Carlström’s, cannot be ruled out of bounds. Perhaps the entire field is indifferent to the truth value of its claims, as are most Tarot enthusiasts(1).


 ✎ 1. Harry Frankfurt famously defined “bullshit” in terms of a speaker’s indifference to the truth value of what is said. Some things may be true and others false, but neither is of concern to the bullshitter.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Modern Catholic Looks at Tarot

The previous post contrasted the manner in which a modern Tarot enthusiast might look at Catholic iconography (e.g., declaring a personification of Ecclesia to be an evil Egyptian magician, with a tail!) with the way in which a rational person might interpret the same image, based on copious evidence from the period including many dozens of cognate examples. Tarot was an inspirational card game created by 15th-century Italian Catholics for the enjoyment of 15th-century Italian Catholics, and that is the only proper context for interpreting the moral allegory of the trump cards. The trump cycle has much in common with other moral allegories of the time, (including various Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works), with other allegorical cycles (including Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione and Petrarch's I Trionfi), and with the immensely influential catalogs of Fortune, Boccaccio's encyclopedia of moralized biography De Casibus, and Petrarch's encyclopedia of moralized circumstance, De Remediis. This was the stuff of mainstream pop-culture Italy in the 15th century.

Petrarchian Triumph of Death, after Heemskerck
Three Registers: All Mankind, Allegorical Triumph, Afterlife

Michael Dummett (The Game of Tarot, 1980, and other works) was himself a Catholic, and that may be one reason why he was never deceived by the fools and charlatans of the Tarot community and their two centuries of anti-Catholic folklore. Another modern Roman Catholic -- one who has also spent many years involved with all manner of games -- is currently presenting a summary analysis of Tarot history. Thomas L. McDonald is nearly finished with a series of blog posts on the "real history" of Tarot. Many of his conclusions are the same as any other rational person's might be, and vastly better than might be found on a Tarot "history" forum. (He even discusses Ross' translation of Bishop Wibold's devotional game.) McDonald just uploaded the post which I was waiting for, on the meaning of the cards, so we'll post some links and comments.

1. Reclaiming Tarot (July 3, 2013)
2. The Real History of Tarot (July 3, 2013)
3. On Divination (July 3, 2013)
4. The Bishop’s Dice Game (July 15, 2013)
5. The Fake History of Tarot (July 16, 2013)
6. The Meaning of the Cards (July 21, 2013)
7. Playing Tarot (link added 7/23/13)
8. Meditations on the Tarot (link added 7/24/13)

Sadly, McDonald has adopted the typical pop-culture approach to interpreting the cards, taking the images out of context and cherry picking a preferred reading for each. He offers more reasonable interpretations than most Tarotists, because his bias is appropriate to the subject matter, and he has therefore accepted the findings of playing-card historians. For example, two of the subjects which have baffled generations of Tarot enthusiasts are the Popess and the Traitor. McDonald gets them both right, but he fails to understand what they're doing in the series.

Some cards appear to be a puzzlement. La Papessa (The Popess/Papess) is often wildly misread as a reference to the mythical figure of “Pope Joan,” a “female pope” who never actually existed. The answer is actually far more mundane: The Popess would represent the association of the Pope with Rome or the Church, which would be depicted as feminine figures (eg, “Holy Mother Church”). It’s simply an allegorical image.

This is very good, as far as it goes. But what is the Church doing as one of the lowest of the trumps, triumphed over by almost every other subject? Was Tarot created by heretics, or perhaps by proto-Protestants?

Similarly, The Hanged Man mystified some people with its image of a man hanging from a scaffold by his left foot. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out What It Could Possibly Mean. In fact, it was a Northern Italian method of execution for traitors. That’s it. Researcher Timothy Betts finds evidence for this in a 1393 decree for Milan and Lombardy: “Let him be drug on a [wooden] plank at a horse’s tail to the place of execution, and there be suspended by one foot to the gallows, and be left there until he is dead. As long as he lives let him be given food and drink.”

McDonald has this subject, the Hanged Man, identified as clearly and correctly as the Popess. (He even cites Timothy Betts, Tarot and the Millennium, 1998.) Of course, this basic identification has been well known for decades, since Moakley (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966), and it is still presented out of context. Without the sequential context of the entire sequence there is little understanding to be gained. Does the relatively high rank of the Hanged Man, in the middle of the cycle, mean that Tarot is celebrating evil? Why would a Traitor triumph over the Holy Roman Emperor and the Vicar of Christ, or over the three Moral Virtues? McDonald's problem is that he ignores the central question re Tarot's meaning: What is this figure doing in the trump cycle? Why does he follow cards like the Triumphal Chariot and Love, then Time and Fortune, and why does he precede Death? Overall, however, McDonald has done the most important things a writer on Tarot can do: Start with Dummett; remember that Tarot was and is a game; and remember that the trump cycle was created by Roman Catholics, for Roman Catholics.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Catholic Church in Rome

Seven years ago, in 2006, Ross found and wrote about a great allegorical image of the Roman Catholic Church conveying blessings. It was used as a printer's mark in a number of books in the early 17th century. Ecclesia is shown with the characteristic papal crown, making a blessing gesture and holding a cornucopia. The five crowns in her lap represent the five patriarchal sees of the Church. There are vanities at her feet, including books, artworks, and musical instruments, and what appears to be a game ball. The motto HINC RELIGIO VERA ("From here the True Religion") indicates the location as Rome, (as do the landmarks in the background), and identifies the bounty symbolized by the cornucopia: True Religion.

Examples are easy to find. When I Google the motto, (quoted, in this order: "vera hinc religio"), the first item that comes up is a 1610 book at, Galileo Galilei's famous Sidereus Nuncius. The site has two copies: Sidereus Nuncius and Sidereus Nuncius. The 1600px image below is a reduced version of the illustration from that book, but still larger than what either of us has posted before.

The Catholic Church conveying the blessings of True Religion from Rome

Like most of the nearly 100 Popess images which Ross and I have found and presented, this serves as a devastating rejoinder to the occultists who maintain that the Popess must have been heretical, alchemical, Pagan, or otherwise non-Christian.(1) In the smaller version below, some of the main elements have been highlighted. The great cornucopia of blessings from the Church, in green, extends all the way to the ground. Symbols of the arts and letters, in red, are displayed as mere vanities scattered at the feet of the Church. Characteristic of Rome, a triumphal arch, an obelisk, the Colosseum, Trajan's spiral column, and a domed church are shown in the background. And the precise nature of the blessings is spelled out in the motto.

An Allegory of Blessings from the Church of Rome

The second item that Google returned is the old page by Ross: "Papesse" as an allegory of the Roman Catholic Church in 17th century printers' marks. (Some old Geocities pages have been resurrected.) He explained the emblem's function as a printer's device for some Venetian publishers. A lot more material is online today, so his list can be easily expanded. There are at least three slightly different versions of the image, and several of the online reproductions are good quality.

In 1607 the Venetian publisher Gio. Batista Pulciano used the emblem in L’Ortigia Tragicomedia Boscareccia, by Viviano Viviani. (This is an example of the first variant image, somewhat simplified.) In 1609 the Venetian publisher Thomas Baglioni used the emblem in Arte del Navigare by Pedro de Medina. As noted above, in 1610 Baglioni used the emblem in Sidereus Nuncius, by Galileo. Also in 1610 Baglioni used the emblem in Consilia Medicinalia, by Cristoforo Guarinoni, and used the emblem again in De Morbis Occultis, by Eustachio Rudio. (This is a good example of the second variant image, with some additional details. This is particularly noticeable in the procession passing through the triumphal arch.) In 1611 Baglioni used the emblem in De Radiis Visus et Lucis, by Marco Antonio de Dominis. In 1613 Baglioni used the emblem in Ad Theorema Geometricum, by Giovanni Camillo Glorioso. In 1616 the Venetian publisher Vincenzo Fiorina used the emblem in Disquisitionum Magicarum, by Martin Antonio Del Rio. In 1617 the Venetian publishers Giorgio Valentini & Antonio Giuliani used the emblem in Opere di Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo. The image was repeated within the book, at the head of two separate works, and again when some of Garzoni's works were published separately. In 1665 the Venetian publisher Michiel Miloco also used the emblem in a work by Garzoni, La Piazza Universale di Tutte le Professioni del Mondo. In 1679 the Venetian publisher Domenico Milocco used the emblem in La Monarchia d'Oriente, by Giacomo Fiorelli.

Naturally, that is a sketchy list, based on a little Googling. However, it does offer one more example of how the Popess was a commonplace figure in Roman Catholic iconography.(2) Just as this image has an intended meaning, (Eco's intentio operis), one which makes sense of the composition and motto in a conventional way, most other period works of art can also be explained. The "arcana", supposedly inexplicable mysteries of Tarot, can also be sensibly explained without resorting to silly Egyptian fantasies or New Age impositions.

May 1, 2013 postscript:

Here are the two variations mentioned above. First the simplified version from Pulciano, 1607, and second the more detailed version used by Baglioni in 1610 for both De Morbis Occultis and Consilia Medicinalia. In the latter, note the throng in triumphal procession, as well as the large figures with identifying attributes located in each corner.

An Allegory of True Religion from the Church of Rome

An Allegory of True Religion from the Church of Rome


 ✎ 1. Sadly, such claims are not a strawman. This folklore remains a popular belief even today. The author of a 2012 book which, supposedly, “exposes the origin of the Tarot symbolism” in ancient Egypt, “from the Unas Pyramids Texts to the Ptolemaic period”, made this claim: “Yes, the Tarot is pre-Christian. Why wouldn't it be? Would Christians invent such a thing? If it were Christian, would it not be a single card rather than a deck? Is La Papesse a Christian concept?” (Answer: Yeah, she really is. Always was.) The post which precipitated this one argued that the present emblem shows an Egyptian setting, which the author connected with Tarot because... derp. I guess because everyone is supposed to know that Tarot is Egyptian. The main figure: “she is an evil magician”. This archaic folklore is not a strawman; it is a zombie idea, dead but undead, still walking around. “Fuckin’ magnets – how do they work?!”
 ✎ 2. This emblem is a great case study of a Popess figure outside of Tarot, but there are dozens of other examples. The more exceptional Popess figures have been presented in detail, including the earliest and the most famous and spectacular. Here are some links.
 • Pre-Tarot Images of Pope Joan (Mar. 26, 2009)
This post includes Popess images by Georgio Vasari, Pasquale Cati da Iesi, and Pieter Pauwel Rubens, but is primarily about early (pre-Tarot) Pope Joan illustrations of Boccaccio. There is also an essay regarding Vincenzo Imperiali's 16th-century comments on the Popess. Perhaps most valuable, it also includes a list of about a dozen old posts and pages from Ross and myself. Most of the links still work.
 • A Florentine Allegory of the Lord's Mercy (Mar. 28, 2009)
This post presents what may be the earliest Popess allegory using a papal tiara. Earlier allegories of the Church, (both Ecclesia per se and Maria Ecclesia), are common dating to the 12th century, but they either failed to use a crown at all or they used a different form. This post also discusses the Maria Ecclesia figure, Mary identified with the Church, who was sometimes depicted with papal attributes, and it presents an example from the 1440s. (Sponsa Christi, Regina Coeli, and Coronation of the Virgin are common motifs which imply Maria Ecclesia. Some show no crown, some show a papal crown, and most show other forms of crown.) Ad hoc allegories using a female figure with papal attributes are also discussed.
 • Popess: The Exemplary Mode (Aug. 16, 2012)
This post presents three wallpaper images which contain about six dozen non-Tarot Popess images. The figures can be grouped into four categories: Pope Joan is a legendary person; Maria Ecclesia is both a legendary person and an allegory of the Church; Catholic allegories are the most interesting category, usually Ecclesia but also an assortment of ad hoc allegories; the Protestant anti-Ecclesia is the Whore of Babylon as the Church of Rome. This post also includes a discussion of two magnificient Popess sculptures in St. Peter's Basilica.
 • A Popess for Pope Pius (Aug. 20, 2012)
This post discusses the Vasari Popess in some detail, and includes good quality images of that painting and two others. Like the sculptures in St. Peter's, each of these figures is perfectly orthodox as Christian allegory, and yet each one symbolizes a rather different subject.
 • Allegory is Allegory (Aug. 26, 2012)
This post presents some famous and striking examples of the Popess, as an allegory of the Roman Catholic Church, in anti-Catholic art. This anti-Ecclesia is typically shown as the Whore of Babylon from chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation, riding a seven-headed beast. This is another motif in which some figures are depicted bare-headed, some with a papal crown, and most are shown with a different form of crown.
 • The Most Celebrated Popess (Aug. 30, 2012)
This post discusses Pope Joan, and presents some pre-Tarot examples, examples of the continuing tradition, and the only Pope Joan illustration that has some arguable connection with Tarot. There is also a discussion of Joan's “crime” in comparison with the condemnation of the Popess by the author of the famous Steele Sermon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mankind: Non Nova Sed Nove

To recapitulate: The Tarot trump cycle is a moral allegory(1). If there is a coherent meaning to the sequence, a design which somehow makes sense of the sequence, then the ranking of trump cards in the game is also a hierarchy of allegorical figures as an artistic composition. If the figures constitute a unified work of art, then the hierarchy is the composition of that work. (Yes, this is uber-geeky stuff.)

This sort of design has some notable forerunners. Prodicus’s Hercules at the Crossroads is the precursor of all moral allegories, but it’s a one-act play. Prudentius’ Psychomachia has virtues defeating vices, battle after battle.(2). Boethius’ uses personifications to tell his story, but it is hardly the same sort of allegorical series. Shortly before the invention of Tarot there was the German Art of Dying Well, which had a much more clearly defined series of psychological battles spelled out. An earlier narrative of allegorical triumphs, Boccaccio’s Amorosa Visione, was better placed in time and country to be influential when Tarot was invented, but the preeminent example was Petrarch’s Triumphs.

As pointed out by Gertrude Moakley, (and applauded by Erwin Panofsky and Michael Dummett), Petrarch’s Trionfi is the primary influence on the design of Tarot, as well as the dominant social context for Tarot’s reception and popularity. They share the same name, and they share the genre of moral allegory with personified figures. They share the same general theme, a contemptu mundi in which worldly concerns are triumphed over by the expected Christian afterlife. They share the same central conceit, a concatenated hierarchy of allegorical triumphs. (This is quite different from the sequence of battles in Psychomachia, Ars Moriendi, or a hypothetical series of virtues and vices.) They share much of the same subject matter in their central personifications, and they share a closely related sequence, although there are difference enough that they are clearly not the same design. The provenance of the two is perfectly aligned for Petrarch to have influenced the design of Tarot. They shared in the popularity of a general Renaissance triumphalism in the later 15th and 16th centuries.

In her book, Moakley makes a case for Tarot being a Carnivalesque parody of Petrarch’s Triumphs, thereby explaining both the similarities and differences. Almost a half century after its publication in 1966, her book remains the only plausible and detailed interpretation of Tarot ever published. This illustrates the remarkable failure of the pop-culture Tarot community to advance their own field of supposed expertise. Thousands of Tarot books (and thousands of Web pages) have been published in the interim, many of them purporting to deal with the historical meaning of Tarot, and the result is virtually nothing of value. One of the reasons why so little progress has been made since Moakley, and since Michael Dummett in 1980, is that their insights have been largely ignored. Taking a different approach, we can proceed step by step beginning with Moakley’s identification of Tarot as a moral allegory, akin to Petrarch’s Trionfi. The second writer on Tarot iconography to acknowledge is Dummett.

Michael Dummett and Tarot Iconography

His most crucial insight, almost universally ignored by would-be Tarot exegetes, is that the trump cycle consists of three different types of subject matter. He originally based this on a comparison of the various orderings of the trumps. These were created in Italy, during the initial spread of the game. Each locale wanted its own version of Tarot, and created their own civic-pride variant ordering.

When we look closely at the various orders, we find that there was far from being total chaos. A first impression is of a good deal of regularity which, however, is hard to specify. Now the cards which wander most unrestrainedly within the sequence, from one ordering to another, are the three Virtues. If we remove these three cards, and consider the sequence formed by the remaining eighteen trump cards, it becomes very easy to state those features of their arrangement which remain constant in all the orderings. Ignoring the Virtues, we can say that the sequence of the remaining trumps falls into three distinct segments, an initial one, a middle one, and a final one, all variation occurring only within these different segments.

Dummett went beyond that and identified the different subject matter included in each group. This essential insight was published in 1980, but most Tarot enthusiasts have yet to grasp it or its significance for understanding Tarot. This post, like the previous one, is about the lowest-ranking group of trumps. Partly as an excuse to post some additional pictures, partly to emphasize that uniqueness is typical.

Everyman and Mankind

Everyman Snuffs It

The lowest subjects in the hierarchy represent Mankind, beginning with the lowly Fool and culminating with the Emperor and Pope. As illustrated dozens of times in the previous post, this is a commonplace subject. Two of the trump figures are religious; two are nobles; and two are riff-raff. This much is obvious at first glance, although even today – a half-century after Moakley and three decades since Dummett(3) – few Tarot writers understand what these cards represent(4). The meaning is not too subtle, complex, nor obscure and, although it is a unique design, there is nothing unusual about that uniqueness.

Mankind was an extremely common subject in religious art(5), and variation was the norm. Representations ranged from a single Everyman figure to a Ranks of Man motif including dozens of assorted stations and professions, from Rex Vivis (in the morality play, Pride of Life) to the junk-picker used by Bruegel to characterize Elck, or the fools used by Brandt to characterize Mankind. Although there was nothing like a canonical form, the most common identifying characteristic of the many representations was the presence of emperor and pope, the highest-ranking figures of temporal and religious arms of Mankind, along with some lesser ranks. In the context of this vast and diverse body of cognates, the design of the Tarot trumps seems rather unexceptional, despite being unique.

According to medieval Christianity, God created the hierarchy of Man to serve his own purposes, and the story of Mankind is the story of the Fall and Salvation. In the picture below, the spiritual and temporal powers are shown explicitly associated with the economy of salvation: an emperor receives Eve’s gift of death, while a pope receives Mary’s gift of life. These orders of Mankind were not just job titles, but essentially different types of human beings, God-given identities as particular classes.

Allegory of the Fall and Redemption

Mankind fucks up in the Garden
Receives second chance from the Virgin

God grants Death
power over Mankind

Aristocracy, the underlying idea of classes of men, goes back to ancient writers, notably including Plato (famously, the men of Gold, Silver, and Bronze) and Aristotle. An interesting example of these ideas being both updated and slanted for a particular audience is presented by Michael Camille in his excellent Master of Death.

While the popular iconography of this period, such as the Dance of the Dead, plays on the sweeping equality of death’s inevitability for all estates from king to beggar, the clear social demarcation between the various orders of society in this period meant that death as a historical force was different for each. Remiet had made a scheme of the different types of men in the world, when illustrating Nicole Oresme’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics for Louis d’Orléans in 1396, which expands the traditional three orders of society, those who plough, fight, and pray, into six separate types of gens deemed necessary for civil society. In Remiet’s version, however, the two groups that come first are literally twice the size of the other four and separated from them at the bottom of the previous page, whereas all six compartments had been equal in earlier versions of the scheme made for Charles V. These two taller and pre-eminent social groups are the soldiers (gens darmes) and the men of government (gens de conseils). It was among these groups that the patron of this copy, Louis d’Orléans, as a seasoned knight and as an advisor to his brother, probably counted himself. On the next page are four smaller compartments where Remiet pictures the four other groups: priests (gent sacerdotal), peasants (cultiveurs de terre), craftsmen (gens de mestier), and merchants (marchands).
(Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Michael Camille, 1996.)

Aristotle’s Politics: Ranks of Men

Soldiers and Councillors

Priests, Peasants, Craftsmen, and Merchants

From our point of view here, it is interesting to note that no king nor pope appears in these panels. This is a striking Ranks of Man design, yet the highest-ranking figures are omitted. It is also worth noting that, as is common, the design is unique and women are ignored.

The Three Estates

Perhaps the most pervasive analysis of social organization in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was the division into three orders. The trifunctional schema, those who pray (oratores), those who fight (bellatores), and those who work (laborares), is closely associated with French philologist Georges Dumézil. It appeared early and its influence continues to this day, with the expressions "third estate" (commoners, hoi polloi, lower classes, etc.) and "fourth estate" (an adversarial Press) being particularly common. However, it lost much of its significance during the 19th century, made rather obsolete by the diminishing power of both Church and State in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Evident in England as early as the ninth century, the trifunctional model triumphed in the eleventh century with the formula, “oratores, bellatores, laboratores” (those who pray, those who fight, those who work): priests, warriors, and peasants. It endured down to the time of the French Revolution with its three estates.
(The Medieval Imagination, Jacques Le Goff, 1985.)

Tree of the Estates, 15th Century France

Although a ternary division of mankind had been common from late antiquity, it took various forms over the centuries, serving different purposes. This is discussed at length in Duby’s The Three Orders, but the key points relevant here are that there were social divisions made and there were different schema used. Regarding the most common form of the Three Estates, “Haymo, a monk at Saint-Germain of Auxerre in the first half of the ninth century... was the first person, so far as we know, to have inscribed side by side on a piece of parchment the three nouns that express social trifunctionality: sacerdotes, milites, agricolae.” It was commonly a hierarchical schema.

While each of the functions was indispensable to the other two, this did not mean that all were equally noble: on this point the bishops were utterly convinced. They also severed whatever connections may have existed between the trifunctional figure and the royal person. In this they were aided by Dionysius. They did not look upon the three functions as upholding the throne or as reflecting the king’s virtues and obligations in the social body. For them, trifunctionality reproduced the heavenly order on earth. Consequently, contrary to what some have maintained, they did in fact regard the triad of functions as including all human conditions, with each of the categories ranged behind a leader, a head, as was appropriate for any “order”, one or another of the three figures of perfection – the good priest, the good soldier, and the good peasant....
(The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Georges Duby, 1978.)

The Three Estates

The Three Estates

Again, the most common form is Pope, Emperor, and Peasant with flail, but extreme variations are also common. One of the most famous examples of the Three Estates view of Mankind comes from the 12th-century Chronicon ex chronicis, by John of Worcester.

The chronicle of John of Worcester, dated between 1130 and 1140, relates the three dreams of Henry I, where the king saw the prelates, knights, and peasants of the kingdom remonstrating bitterly with him about high taxes, and each social order is described in an emblematic way, the peasants with their agricultural implements, the knights in mail-armour, wearing iron caps, and carrying weapons of various kinds, and finally the prelates with their pastoral staff. The paintings illustrating the chronicle in the manuscript of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, faithfully reproduce the written account of the dreams.
(Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, 2002.)

The fourth image below represents the White Ship, a reality worse than Henry’s dreams.

The Dreams of King Henry I

Over four centuries later, the Three Estates remained a conventional moral theme, like the divine right of kings, promoting the aristocratic ethic, "know your place, peons". Sometimes the idea was elaborated.

The Divine Charge to the Three Estates

The Working Class

The Ruling Class

The Church

Mankind’s Reward

As an ideological tool, the Three Estates was sometimes useful in terms of fighting specific egalitarian heresies(6). More generally, it justified the aristocratic order of nobles over peasants and villagers, and the power and privileges of clerics as well.

The value specific to the populace, to which was attributed a saving grace on a par with valor [of the knights] and purity [of the priests], was the pain of the flesh, the suffering due to labor. Dolar—labor. Just as the function of the pure was to pray for their fellows, and that of the valiant to risk their lives in defense of all, so the function of those whose value consisted in their weariness was to win the bread of other men in the sweat of their brow. This toil they offered in exchange for the salvation of their souls and the security of their bodies. Justifying themselves, but in the same stroke justifying the seigniorial mode of production as well.
(The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Georges Duby, 1978.)

Sometimes the idea was as simplified as in the 13th-century illuminated initial and 15th-century marginalia below. In the latter, one corpse holds a papal tiara, one holds a kingly crown, and the third has only a flower to use as a hat.

The Three Estates

Monk, Knight, Peasant

Job on Dungheap

Church and State

Not as celebrated but perhaps as common as the Three Estates analysis of social organization was a dualistic grouping into Church and State, the religious and temporal branches of Mankind. The two arms of Leviathan from the title-page of Hobbes famous book show the corporate State, what Hobbes termed the “body politic” (“De Corpore Politico”), literally headed by the monarch, wielding both temporal and religious power. This is analogous to one traditional meaning of “the Church”, the corporation of the faithful.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

This too is, of course, a God-given scheme.

Christ Confers Powers of Church and State

Any typology of Mankind must, of course, exist within the larger framework of the Christian view of the cosmos. Perhaps the greatest, and most well-known image of this Chain of Being comes from Rhetorica Christiana, which also includes a tree of Temporal Hierarchy and another of Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

Diego Valadés’ Rhetorica Christiana

Hierarchia Temporalis

Great Chain of Being

Hierarchia Ecclesiastica

Again, it is immediately apparent that different groupings were used, as well as different figures to represent each group. Most commonly this would reflect the religious versus secular dichotomy or the Three Estates, and sometimes the religious and secular groupings of Christendom would be contrasted with those outside the fold: non-believers, heretics, Muslims, Jews, or more generally speaking, the damned. Those were common ways of depicting Mankind, and most of them included either an emperor and pope or similar figures, such as king and bishop. (Does repetition help?)

Among the themes depicted in the Gallery: Ranks of Mankind post were adoration of sacred subjects, subjection to Folly and Fortune, subjection to Death, protection by the Virgin, Christ, or both, and subjection to the Last Judgment. The emperor and pope, usually with subordinates, turned up most commonly in connection with memento mori and the Triumph of Death, including the Danse Macabre, and resurrection to Judgment. These were the things with which Mankind was concerned – especially Death.

Non Nove Sed Nove

One more time: A fundamental fact about the examples above, and the seven dozen examples in the previous post, is that uniqueness is not unusual. Each artist sought to represent a similar, closely related concept: either all of Mankind or all of Christendom in most cases. This corporate protagonist is the Everyman of some allegorical composition. Some motifs (like the papal tiara and imperial crown) are quite common, although none are universal. This novelty within convention is typical of works of art and literature. Artists are creative, but no work is wholly novel. Most works include novel elements or creative handling of some elements: non nova sed nove.

This is the nature of Tarot, both in general terms and in terms of each individual deck design.

In general terms, the Tarot trump cycle teaches a very derivative moral lesson, using conventional themes, subjects, and individual motifs. The lowest trumps represent Mankind. The middle trumps show the rise and fall of Fortune’s Wheel, met with the three Moral Virtues. The highest trumps tell of the biblical End Times, including the overthrow of the Devil, the signa coeli of Luke 21:25, and Last Resurrection and New World. However, it expresses this story with in novel fashion. This is one level of non nova sed nove in Tarot.

During the first century of Tarot in Italy, each locale wanted their own version of Tarot. The primary trump subjects, like the Sun, were conflated with different secondary subjects, like a woman spinning, children playing, or Diogenes in his barrel. The order of the cards within each of the three sections was revised a bit, suggesting a somewhat different allegorical narrative. This is another level of non nova sed nove in Tarot.

A second noteworthy observation is that the most common moral allegory which used Everyman or Mankind was some variation on mors omnia aequat. There are few things that can be honestly said about all people, but death is the one true universal. Death is also central to the theology of Christianity. The Fall of Man instituted death, allegorically giving King Death sovereignty over Man. The death of Jesus was the redemptive act of his life. Everything else was incidental. And the culmination of all time is the Last Resurrection from death, after which we are judged. The Gothic Macabre sensibilities of Christians was not an aberration but a recognition of their theological core. Vera philosophia est meditatio mortis.

These are important points in terms of understanding the Tarot trump cycle. The design of the lowest trumps, as a group, is unique but that does not indicate that it is a secret heretical code or alchemical woo-woo or, worse yet, a meaningless hodge-podge of subjects. Like so many other works of art and literature, Tarot is non nova, sed nove rather than a mindless copy of some other work. The fact that so many moral allegories with a ranks-of-man motif center around Death personified is also revealing. The middle trumps in Tarot end with Death and the highest trumps end with the Last Resurrection and New World -- triumphing over Death. This design is, in general terms, consistent with the most common family of images illustrated in the Gallery: Ranks of Man post. Tarot is unique, but also fairly typical.


 ✎ 1. My approach to the meaning of Tarot was recently shrugged off in a snarky, Twitter-length dismissal: “Congratulations Mr Hurst. You've discovered Art History. Welcome.” In his mind, that was adequate rebuttal of anything (everything?) I've written, and there is a sense in which his contempt may seem justified. Since 2000, I have been trying to bring basic art-historical attitudes and methods to the question of Tarot iconography. If sensible, objective methods of research and analysis were practiced by the writers of Tarot books and online Tarot enthusiasts, then my sermons about it for over a decade would indeed be silly – preaching to the choir. As an example, I take the Wheel of Fortune in Tarot to represent the Wheel of Fortune, and to do so in much the same way as in countless other works of art and literature. (Cf. Panofsky, Renaissance Art, & Tarot, June 8, 2002.) This seems trivial, a childlike reading when compared to the slippery, convoluted, and far-fetched interpretations of the cultists. However, this approach is neither trivial nor common, and there is another sense in which my critic’s posturing exemplifies much that is wrong in online Tarot-history fora. The insinuation is that an art-historical approach is nothing new, nothing important, nothing different than what everyone else is doing. That insinuation is a lie. So I’ll continue presenting this approach to Tarot iconography, including the sine qua non observation that the trump cycle is a moral allegory rather than an occult manifesto, political propaganda, rites of initiation to a secret society, etc.
 ✎ 2. George Leake discussed Psychomachia, the Ages of Man, Romance of the Rose, and by extension the whole family of medieval allegory in his 1999 essay, Tarot Origins: Sorting Out History and Myth. It doesn't seem to be online except where I posted it to THF, and at the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine:
Tarot Origins: Sorting Out History and Myth.
 ✎ 3. Moakley and Dummett are name-checked here because they explained much about the allegorical design of the trump cycle. Moakley correctly identified the genre as a moral allegory, suggesting parallels with Petrarch’s Trionfi. Dummett had a fairly clear understanding that the lowest trumps are a Ranks of Man motif, pointing out both the division between the three sections and the nature of the subject matter in each section. They laid the foundations of an art-historical understanding.
 ✎ 4. The confused attempts at explaining the Popess which are being recycled at THF demonstrate that, as of 2013, most Tarot enthusiasts do not yet understand anything about the meaning of the trumps as a cyclic work of art. They cannot grasp the fundamental idea that adjacent cards form a coherent group, a meaningful context which is crucial to understanding the more perplexing cards within that group. The art-historical approach remains so foreign to them as to be unintelligible.
 ✎ 5. The term “religious art” is used to include works usually termed profane, such as a Dance of Death fresco on a church wall. While not Biblical, nor about the life of Christ or the saints, the didactic point of such moral allegories was essentially homiletic.
 ✎ 6. A key example of such egalitarian heresy given by Duby is the millennial spiritual movement in northern France: Orléans 1022, Arras 1024, Champagne. Cf. pp. 130ff.