Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The tarot is an enigma, so little is known about the early years of its recorded history. Especially unclear is the rationale, if any, for the 22 special cards that were added to the regular suits, i.e. the “major arcana”, the 21trump cards plus the Fool. How were these images chosen and why are they in a particular order? That is a subject made doubly difficult if one considers that there were over a dozen early orders and that no one knows the circumstances of the tarot's creation, not even how many special cards there were, even if the number soon became 22 everywhere.

However there is a related topic that is within the realm of meaningful speculation. Given the various symbol systems then popular among various strata of the people in Italy during the formative period of the tarot, which of them make sense of the tarot's order, images, and titles when applied to the cards as they existed in one or more of its early centers? Roman Catholic Christianity, in Latin and its vernacular derivatives, has to be one such symbol system, at least for many of the images. (I specify these languages because some of the original titles differ from their English versions.)  The images of Giustizia (Justice), Fortezza (Fortitude, Strength), Temperanza (Temperance, Self-Control), Papa (Pope), Devil (Diavolo), the Lightning-Struck Tower (Fuoco, Sagitta), and Judgment (then called l'Angelo), for example, reflect conventional imagery in churches and illuminated manuscripts during the Middle Ages. However, such meanings do not exclude those of other symbol systems, if only after the fact, as providing an interpretive schema for understanding the cards and their order. Platonism, I think, is one such system.

Why Plato? It is simple. He was, intellectually speaking, the “man of the hour” in 15th century Italy. Before then, few people spoke Greek. and only part of one work, the Timaeus, was available even in Latin. Suddenly in the 14th and 15th centuries, with the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Italy was awash with manuscripts and teachers of Greek, including the works of Plato.

Other Platonic works in Greek arrived for the first time as well. In the Middle Ages, again, what had been available was mostly what was in Latin, such as Cicero, Apuleius, and Macrobius. An exception was the writer in Greek called "Dionysius the Areopagite", whose works were deemed worthy of translation because he was confused with the Dionysius mentioned in the Bible as a disciple of Paul, The author was actually a fifth century Greek Christianizer of the pagan Neoplatonist Proclus. But by the 15th century there were many more Neoplatonic works, including pseudo-Dionysius's model, Proclus. This new interest in Platonic works was accompanied by a new and elegant translation of pseudo-Dionysius by the influential Florentine monk Ambrogio Traversari in c. 1436.

In such conditions, it is reasonable to surmise that Platonism, which has been fruitfully applied to Renaissance art, might also apply to the tarot sequence. If any Platonic analyses were written, they have not survived. But that does not mean that humanistically educated people would not have thought of the tarot in such terms, for several reasons. First, nobody then wrote philosophical analyses even of works of high art.  Symbolism was thought to exist on many levels and was best left to be discovered by the viewer, although a court humanist might discuss it orally with his patron. Second, writing a Platonic interpretation would go against entrenched ways of thinking. Clergy were accustomed to thinking that Christianity had surpassed pagan thought and therefore going back to Plato would be a regression. In the universities, it was thought that the synthesis of Aristotle with Christianity achieved by Aquinas included anything good Plato offered. Finally, some people who promoted a broader approach were in fact persecuted by the Church (Pico, Reuchlin, and Ficino almost, as documented in Vol. 9 of his letters); one never knew what would be considered objectionable. Moreover, such interpretations might cause the tarot itself to be outlawed, thus depriving humanity of both any lessons to be derived from its trump sequence and a game played with this special deck that they may have found superior to those with ordinary cards.

Then there is the question of which decks, of those for which there are surviving cards, such an analysis would apply to. The tarot decks of Milan and Pavia were different from those of Florence and Bologna, and those of Ferrara and Venice, while related to the others, differed from both. In addition to cards, there is also the order to consider. Although the first documentation of decks called "trionfi" is in 1440 Florence, there is no indication of how many cards there were or their order; the only 15th century account of the order is from the Ferrara area, some time after 1460, the so-called "Steele Sermon"; it lists the usual 22 subjects in an order that is not the same as that to which we are accustomed today.

While the main subjects, as indicated by the titles that have been preserved, were much the same from one deck toanother, the other imagery on the cards differs from deck to deck. Some Chariot cards have men on the chariot, while others have women. Some Hanged Men are weighed down by money bags, some are not. The Star, Moon, and Sun cards show widely different scenes. If the cards have allegorical meanings, such differences are important, even if in playing a card game they are not. I am not going to deal with all the variations. Instead, I want to make a case for a Platonic interpretation of what was to become most popular French deck, the so-called "Marseille" pattern, and what I take to be some of its antecedents in 15th and early 16th century Milan.

Milan has left us four partial early decks. In the literature, they are referred to in terms of their modern owners or former owners, names that are not very meaningful for present purposes; what is more important are the dates currently given for their completion. These dates are tentative, which is why they are identified by something more certain; so I will start out by giving their names plus the dating; then later I will mostly just use dates. Three are illuminated decks which Bandera and Tanzi, in the Brera Gallery's 2013 Milan exhibition catalog, attribute to the Bembo workshop in Cremona, which is near Milan. Two of these are early 1440s: one (Cary-Yale, or CY) is c. 1442; the other (Brera-Brambilla, or BB), is c. 1444, both are attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. The CY has eleven surviving special cards, and the BB only two. The third deck  (Pierpont Morgan Bergamo, or PMB) has cards in two different styles, one of the 1450s, with fourteen of the special cards, and the other in a style of later in the century, with six; I will call them the “1450s” and the “later 1400s” cards. Bandera and Tanzi attribute the 1450s cards to Bonifacio and Ambrogio Bembo and the “later 1400s” cards to Antonio Cicognara, an artist whose career began in c. 1480. (Many tarot researchers do not accept that attribution or so late a date.) A fourth set of cards, called the Cary Sheet, is in the form of a sheet of unseparated cards of c. 1500, with all or part of 18 special cards showing. It is not certain that this sheet was of Milanese design, as the French then were occupying Milan. But the cards are clearly descended from something like the earlier illuminated decks of Milan, because of numerous features unique to early Milan decks.

None of these four sets has 22 surviving special cards. The BB of c. 1444 has only two. And of the usual subjects the CY of c. 1442 has only eight; the other three are the theological virtues Hope, Faith, and Charity. Put together, however, the four sets of Milan do include all 22 normal subjects, most of them more than once.

I am not going to argue that the tarot as represented in Milan and after was designed with Platonic allegories in mind. It might have been, since they fit so well. The original designers' intentions are hard to determine; it is not even clear whether the tarot had 22 special cards at first or if that number was reached after a period of development. I only want to show that it would have been natural to see the tarot sequence from a Platonic perspective among humanists and those who followed them, some cards as early as the first extant decks, the rest by the end of the 15th century.

In my presentation I am not going to follow the order as given in the "Steele Sermon" or any other of the early lists, but rather from the more to the less straightforward, in terms of Plato. This order also corresponds more or less to when the relevant works by Plato, along with other ancient works by Platonists, came to the attention of humanist circles. At the end, I will give an overview of the whole sequence in Platonic terms and following the French order, first attested in 1558 Lyon. an order very close to that of Milan and Pavia as given in the 16th century Lombard lists.


One of the first newly available works of Plato to be translated into Latin was the Republic, first translated in 1404 (Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 1 p. 108) and again in 1436-1440 (Hankins p. 120), both times in Milan. In that work Plato defined the good life as that lived in accordance with certain eternal "ideas". The Jewish Platonist Philo later called  them "archetypes", a term I prefer because it is less likely to be confused with the word “idea” as it is used in English. Because the archetypes were unchanging principles, Plato held them to be more real than the changing and sometimes illusory objects that appear to our senses. Plato's four basic ethical archetypes, for the state as well as the individual, were, as they became known in Latin, Temperantia (Temperance), Fortitudine (corresponding to the English "Fortitude"), Sapientia (Wisdom), and Iusticia (Justice). Their primacy later became part of standard Church doctrine, with just one change: instead of Wisdom, the Church, following Cicero's terminology, had Prudence. In the early tarot, three of these virtues are card titles, in the early lists (I give here the Italian and the French titles): Temperanza/La Temperance, Fortezza/La Force, and Giustizia/La Justice, each depicted with standard medieval attributes. The only omission was Prudenza. I will deal with the three virtues that became titles of tarot cards in due course; in this section I want to discuss the omitted one.

Why is one or the other of these virtues, Plato's Wisdom or Cicero's Prudence, not named in the early lists? One possible explanation is that Aristotle, and after him Aquinas, classified these these virtues as intellectual, as opposed to moral, virtues.

Alternatively. there might have been an issue of which to use (if not both). Wisdom, when differentiated from Prudence, was knowledge of divine things, too exalted for the common man. Prudence, as the use of reason to guide action, was within the reach of all, given the guidance of the Church. But if one authority has "Wisdom" and another "Prudence", it might be better to leave both out.

Another possibility is that Wisdom or Prudence, one or the other, was represented by a card with another title. One possibility is the Popess. Plato had a female wisdom-figure, Diotima, Socrates' initiator into the "mysteries of love" in the Symposium; she may be the same as what, in the Apology, he called his daemon, in the sense of guardian spirit, which warned him of courses of action that would be bad for him. If so, Diotima would be an inner voice with which Socrates conversed. A female Pope could then be such a figure in Christian dress, and an exemplar, in Platonic terms, of the archetype of Wisdom, corresponding to Prudence for the Church.

In favor of the Popess as an embodiment of Prudence or Wisdom, the card has two of their medieval attributes, the cross-staff and the book (at left above, the first known Popess, 1450s, supports the staff with her right hand). An early example of Prudence with these attributes is in an illumination of the 8th century, (at left: Autun, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 19 bis, fol. 173v, dated in Adolph Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, 1939; Lothar Teikemeier located the image online). Another, this one of Wisdom from a 13th century manuscript in Florence's Laurentian Library, Bibbia Mugellana 2, f. 189, is labeled Sapientia and wears a crown (below right). The illumination is of the first letter of "Omnis Sapientia a Domino Deo est et cum illo fuit", all wisdom is from the Lord God, and hath been always with him. (This information from Bibbie Miniate della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana di Firenzi, by Laura Alidori Bartaglia et al, 2006, p. 97; the Bible verse is Ecclesiasticus 1:1, in the Vulgate's Latin and the Douhy Rheims' English translation.)

But why, if the Popess is Wisdom, is she not enthroned, as in
the illumination? We cannot say what the figure looked like originally, if she existed in earlier tarots before this one. But one answer, for the first card we do know, might be in Petrarch's treatment of the virtue in his De Remediis (1.12, “Sapienta”), which ends: “Nihil ascendat quam himilitas operosa: nothing leads higher than effort in humility" (Rawski translation, p. 36). Petrarch is echoing Augustine, who in the Enchiridion had said (Outler translation, 1955, online):
Human wisdom consists in piety. This you have in the book of the saintly Job, for there he writes that Wisdom herself said to man, "Behold, piety is wisdom."
What kind of piety is Wisdom referring to? Augustine asks. His answer: “man’s service of God”, which is thereby “the source of human wisdom”. A humble and pious Wisdom will likely not be found on a throne.


An interpretation of the Popess as Wisdom does not exclude other interpretations. If divine Wisdom is instantiated by humble piety in the world, it can be represented by a nun in a simple habit. But the Popess's crown gives her an authority like the Pope's, and so perhaps the card also could mean the Church or the Christian Faith, the worldly representative of divine Wisdom. Famously at that time, Giotto's c. 1305 depiction of the virtue "Faith" in Padua (far left) had a lady with a cross-staff and a scroll, the latter rather like Wisdom's book.

Another association to the card, deriving from an association with the Church, might have been to the Virgin Mary. For example, Erwin Panofsky identified a 1302-1310 statue of a "crowned woman nursing two babies", by Giovanni Pisano on the pulpit of the Pisa Duomo, as "the regal figure of Maria-Sponsa-Ecclesia" (Studies in Iconology, p. 157 and note 97 of 1972 paperback edition). Panofsky did not explain the two babies. The crowned Virgin was the "Bride of Christ". This also identified her with the sponsa of the Song of Songs, who in turn was identified with the Church.

Virgins with papal-like crowns appeared frequently in Renaissance art. Examples are that of the Sienese painter Martino di Bartolomeo. c. 1400 (near left)., and  another in 1446 England, in the charter for the founding of King’s College, Cambridge, for which the Virgin was one of the College’s patron saints (far left). (This last image was posted on the Tarot History Forum by Jean-Michel David.)

The Virgin, like Wisdom, was often shown with a book, sometimes learning how to read from her mother, more often pointing to the Book of Isaiah at the Annunciation. For people familiar with such depictions, an association of the Popess card with the crowned Virgin would be a natural one, and from there, for those who knew their theology, to Wisdom and its earthly approximations. I do not say that the Popess is the Virgin, let me make clear, just that the Virgin is another image of the archetype for those who knew the symbols.

An association between the Virgin and Wisdom might explain the unique way in which the Bembo workshop portrayed the Virgin’s Coronation. Wisdom was personified in the Hebrew Bible as God's creation "in the beginning of his ways", Prov. 8:22, cited by Bandera and Tanzi 2013 p. 66, Tanzi 2011 p. 26).  Tanzi points out that all three of the Bembo “Assumption of the Virgin” invariably showed her being crowned by the Father at the same time as Christ, as opposed to the usual way, in which Christ crowns the Virgin. Tanzi concludes that this is therefore not after the Assumption, when Christ would already be crowned, but rather at the beginning of the world. If so, that would explain why she does not fall under St. Paul's dictum that all the descendants of Adam are subject to original sin: she is from before Adam. Tanzi says that Mary's immaculate conception had been part of the turbolenze at the Council of Basel, which closed in 1439. A resolution supporting the immaculate conception was part of its proceedings, if she was held to have existed before the creation of Adam, that would account for special status, alone among mortals.

In these Bembo Virgins, there is some facial resemblance to the Popess. In one attributed to Ambrogio Bembo, 1445-1450 (at left above), she conforms to the standard late Gothic Lombard image of the Virgin, but also has some similarity to the Popess. In the "Ascension", c. 1440-1445, by his brother Bonifacio (at right above), the resemblance seems to me rather striking.

Coronations of the Virgin usually had a dove somewhere in the painting; the Bembo altarpieces do not.  Tanzi says only, "l’assenza dello Spirito Santo è legata a una precisa questione dottrinale": "the absence of the Holy Spirit is linked to a precise doctrinal question" (Arcigotissimo Bembo. 2011, p. 27). Unfortunately he does not say what that question was. The Holy Spirit was indeed debated at the Council, especially when the Greek Church arrived; a major issue dividing the two Churches was whether the Holy Spirit “proceeded from the Father”, as the Greeks maintained, or “proceeded from the Father and the Son”, as the Latins said. In both Greek and Roman art, the Holy Spirit was frequently represented by a dove; whether the form the Holy Spirit took at Mary's coronation was part of the debate  I do not know. But it is not far-fetched to hypothesize that Mary, in these Bembo altarpieces, replaced the dove, so that the three figures of the Coronation are also the Trinity. In support I can only quote the New World Encyclopedia (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Holy_Spirit):
In light of the biblical notion of the androgynous image of God who created male and female in his image (Gen. 1:27), it has been suggested that a feminine Holy Spirit would be the appropriate counterpart to the male figure of the Son, who is manifest in Jesus Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit as comforter, intercessor and source of inspiration could be represented in the ministrations of Mary and other holy women of God.
Mary is especially appropriate if she, like the Son, was with God from the beginning.


The  humility with which Petrarch characterized Wisdom, and which was depicted by means of the crowned Virgin, was also taught by Plato, in his account of the trial of Socrates. The oracle at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates (Apology 21a). Socrates did not believe that, but when he listened to others, he concluded that perhaps he was, because he at least knew when he was ignorant (21b)l  Also, any prudence he evidenced, he said, was the result of listening to a voice within him (31d), his daemon, i.e. a divine source.

So while Wisdom or Prudence could be represented by the Popess, Socrates' inner voice, there is also Socrates himself. In that case, the Hermit could be the representative of the virtue. Old men with beards were traditional wisdom and prudence figures. Petrarch said of wisdom, attributing the thought to Plato: “It requires the effort of an entire lifetime, no matter how long that may be” (De Remediis 1.12). In favor of the Old Man as Wisdom, that card is in the right place in the deck, near the other virtues, as opposed to either either end.

However the first surviving Old Man card (of which a detail is at left) is dressed rather well, and he carries an hourglass. That associates him with Time, Chronos, and probably also to Cronos, the Greek Saturn, who was associated with Chronos by the similar pronunciation of the words. Later versions of this card turned the hourglass into a lantern, which perhaps is a symbol of illumination, i.e. wisdom or knowledge. In Plato's "allegory of the cave" (Republic VII, 514-521) the light of a fire is a weak substitute for sunlight, i.e. true illumination. But perhaps it is a start. Socrates never claimed to be wise; he was merely wiser than those who thought they had wisdom. On the "Marseille" versions, a fold in the Hermit's robe resembles a sun with its rays, another suggestion of illumination, or at least a semblance of it.

But Wisdom or Prudence, as an intellectual virtue, might have been thought of as separate from the others and so near the beginning, where the Popess is, or the end. At the end (or possibly second to the end, as it was in Florence and Bologna), the World is the highest card, triumphing over everything else, just as Plato’s virtue of wisdom governs the others. In Florence the earliest extant World card, c. 1460-1470, shows a lady with an octagonal halo (near left), like the ladies on that deck's virtue cards. If the card was a virtue there, it might have been one in Milan. The obvious one is Prudence. However it might also be the Triumph of Fame. Boccaccio had described in connection with it a circle with villas, hills, and seas in it; similar circles are in the illustrations of this part of Petrarch's poem.. Some versions of this card have seas.

It is possible that the city in a bubble on the c. 1480 World card of Milan (far left) was seen as an approximation of Plato’s ideal republic. If so, the city would be a model of wisdom. Alternatively, if that card depicted the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation, it again would be an illustration of prudence and wisdom. For such a reward, it was prudent to embrace Christianity. For Plato as well as Christianity, Wisdom as such was known only in heaven.

The Risposta [Answer] of Imperiali to the Invettiva [Invective] of Lollio, Ferrara c. 1554,  as Andrea Vitali has pointed out (http://www.letarot.it/page.aspx?id=124&lng=eng), listed "prudentia" in the place where one would expect the Hanged Man. The Hanged Man, whether on earth or in hell, is an example of someone who is exceedingly imprudent, and as such is a reminder to us of the virtue.


Soon after Plato's death the "Ideas" or "archetypes" came to be thought of as within the mind of God. As such they entered the "Names of God" tradition of the Middle Ages. This interpretation had developed after the medieval translations (10th century) of pseudo-Dionysius's book of that name. In On Divine Names pseudo-Dionysius had said (1.4, , Luibheid translation):
For we shall be equal to the angels, as the truth of the Oracles affirms, and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But now, to the best of our ability, we use symbols appropriate to things Divine, and from these again we elevate ourselves, according to our degree...
The "divine names" needed symbols, i.e. words or images that would lead us upwards from the everyday to the divine. This text, remember, had been newly translated in Florence in 1436. Images as well as words were symbols.

This principle can be applied to the Popess as Wisdom, one of the divine names, but also to the three cards after her in the order: Empress, Emperor, and Pope.

The Empress (c. 1442 and 1450s at left), as the one who gives birth to and nurtures new emperors, is an embodiment of the divine name “source of life” (856B). The 1450s Empress’s green glove in that deck is a symbol of the ever-renewing cycle of life. Her shield, displaying the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, sits on her lap, where an infant would sit in a portrait of a mother and child.

The divine name "King of Kings" (969A) is a term readily understood as relating to the Emperor; (in the c. 1442 version, far left, and 1450s, near left). Another is “Ancient of Days" (936D), which doesn't fit the 1442 Emperor (far left), but does the 1450s one (as well as the Hermit/Old Man).

As if recognizing the analogy to God, the designer of the 1450s cards changed the Emperor's appearance so that he would have a long white beard similar to that of God the Father on the card depicting the Last Judgment (detail at left). We may have been intended to see the 1450s Emperor as embodying qualities of God (for which see Andrea Vitali's essay on the card, here). The Emperor card in the 1440s decks, in contrast, looks more like the real emperor at that time.

 The divine name "Holy of Holies" (On Divine Names 969A) fits the Pope; his priestly vestments signify the “capacity to guide spiritually to the divine and mysterious sights” (533A). His shorter beard might suggest that he has more to learn, but I suspect it is simply the way the artist drew popes and other still vigorous but aging men. A similar one is on Pope Gregory the Great in the Cavalcabò Chapel in St. Agostino, Cremona, by the same Bembo workshop (Tanzi, Archigoticissimo Bembo, 2011, p. 70).

The divine name "Eternity" (937B) fits the World card as portrayed in the late 15th century card shown earlier, two putti (child angels) gesturing to a city in a bubble. It also fits the “Marseille” card with the symbols of four evangelists in the corners, each of which had symbolic meaning (336D-337A). "Time" for Plato was “the moving image of eternity” (Timaeus 37d) and was another “name of God” for ps-Dionysius (937B); it fits the Hermit, then called the Old Man or Time, early on holding an hourglass.

"Time" for Plato was “the moving image of eternity” (Timaeus 37d) and for ps.-Dionysius was another “name of God” (937B); it fits the Hermit, then called the Old Man or Time, early on holding an hourglass. For him there is also the divine name "Ancient of Days".

The three cards that had the names of virtues—Iustitia, Fortitudine, and Temperantia--are also names of God or closely related concepts.  All the virtues flow from God’s goodness. God's Justice is ps.-Dionysius's “Righteousness”, by which God orders his cosmos, thus “giving each thing what it inherently deserved” (896A). "Omnipotence" (936A), another divine name, meaning unlimited strength, descends to humanity as Fortitude, i.e. Strength in the sense of "strength of soul", as opposed to body. But God himself is Fortitudine, the Italian Fortezza, in the sense that his strength, of whatever in God corresponds to soul in humans, can overcome any evil; and on earth as Christ, he displays the same, treating pain and death itself as to be preferred over compromise with evil. Temperance (717A) is in God his self-control, meaning that his rational aspect dominates over anything in him corresponding to the emotions or appetites that humans think in terms of.

Rather than being Divine Names themselves, the figures on these cards are vivid, memorable examplars corresponding to them. Some depict mortals in our world; others are simply symbolic images: e.g. a woman putting her hand in the mouth of a lion, another holding a sword and a scales, a third pouring liquid from one vessel to another, the avoidance of extremes that reason provides.

In the Milan-based tarot, the cards are in the order Justice-Fortitude-Temperance, in 8th, 11th, and 14th position, i.e. each separated from the next by two cards. This order, but with Prudence at the end, is that given by St. Thomas Aquinas (http://catholicism.about.com/od/beliefsteachings/tp/Cardinal_Virtues.htm). Plato gave them in the order Temperance-Fortitude-Wisdom-Justice, with Temperance being the virtue that governs our bodily appetites, Fortitude our spirit, Wisdom the rational part, and Justice the management of the three others. This order, once Wisdom is removed, is that of Florence, Bologna, and minchiate, which to that extent follow Plato better than Milan.


Images of the sort found in the tarot were thought even more suitable for divine things than words. This dictum was understood at least by the 1430s, following the 1419 discovery of an ancient book called Hieroglyphica, Greek for "sacred carvings"; it professed to interpret the picture writing of the Egyptians, explaining how the Egyptians used pictures of animals and other things to represent complex ideas. Humanists connected this with what other ancient writers said about Egyptian writing. In Latin, for example, there was Tacitus (c. 56-after 117 c.e.), in his Annals Book 14 (http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.7.xi.html):
It was the Egyptians who first symbolized ideas, and that by the figures of animals. These records, the most ancient of all human history, are still seen engraved on stone. The Egyptians also claim to have invented the alphabet, which the Phoenicians, they say, by means of their superior seamanship, introduced into Greece....
As he and others explained, the Egyptians had a phonetic writing for everyday use, but for higher things they used pictures. The Christian bishop Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636)  was another Latin source (trans. Barney, p. 39, in Google books):
Queen Isis devised the Egyptian letters when she came over from Greece. The priests used some letters and the common people used others. The priestly letters are known as eiros (sacred) and the common letters, pandemos (common) .
There were also many similar accounts in ancient Greek writings. So in the 1440s Leon Battista Alberti could write of the Egyptians, in De Edificio (On Building, in ten books, trans. Rykwert, Leach, and Tavernor, p. 256):
They maintained that each nation knew only its own alphabet, and that eventually all knowledge of it would be lost—as has happened with our own Etruscan. The same, the Egyptians claimed, should happen to all other alphabets, whereas the method of writing they used could be understood easily by expert men all over the world, to whom alone noble matters should be communicated..
Pictures were more lasting than words for conveying noble or sacred matters; not only were the meanings hidden from those who would not understand them, but they would be clear even without words to those acquainted with Truth.

Moreover, pictures could easily embody a multitude of equally valid interpretations. In his essay "Rings", c. 1432, Alberti gave several interpretations of his own favorite image, that of a winged eye, which he imagined put on a ring. Then he added (Dinner Pieces, Marsh translation, p. 213f).:
In describing this first ring, I have chosen to be brief, for it would take too long to discuss all the aspects of a matter so rich in lessons. Besides, since you are wise, you will be able to appreciate their value clearly and plainly if you reflect on them. 
He called such allegorical devices “mysteries” (mysteria) that had a special appeal to the imaginations of learned men. For fuller quotations from this and other writers see http://www.tarotforum.net/showthread.php?t=94755&page=5, starting with my 2nd post.

In his 1492 translation, with commentary, of Plotinus's Enneads, the Renaissance Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino described this founder of Neoplatonism as making such teachings part of his philosophy, explaining a passage in Plotinus as follows (Boas, The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, 1993 edition, p. 14, in Google Books):
..Thus the Egyptian priests, when they wished to signify divine things, did not use letters, but whole figures of plants, trees, and animals; for God doubtless has a knowledge of things which is not discursive thought about a subject, but, as it were, the simple and steadfast form of it.
In other words, a picture can capture an idea in a way that suggests God's own apprehension of the form, i.e. the archetype in the mind of God, which for us is ungraspable, even contradictory, but to him is simple; we are like the proverbial blind men feeling the different parts of an elephant. In that way the picture is like the "symbol" of ps.-Dionysius, which points beyond our finite understanding.

Here is part of what Ficino was commenting on in Plotinus himself (from Ennead V.8.5-6, as translated by Boas, p. 8; that page is not online, but this quote and the whole of the next can be found elsewhere on the Web):
It must not be thought that in the Intelligible World the gods and the blessed see propositions; everything expressed there is a beautiful image, such as one imagines to be in the soul of a wise man, images not drawn, but real. ...And therefore the Ancients said that real being is ideas and substances.
Then he discusses the Egyptian sages' practice of drawing pictures, ending:
...Thus each picture was a kind of understanding and wisdom and substance and given all at once, and not discursive reasoning and deliberation.
Discursive reasoning and deliberation, Boas then paraphrases Plotinus, come subsequently. That is very much like Alberti's account of his emblem, or an analysis in words of a tarot image.

Soon humanists, starting with Alciato’s Emblemata in 1531, were writing so-called "emblem books" with multitudes of their own such images, each associated with a Latin saying.  It wasn't long before the tarot triumphs themselves were called "hieroglyphs", not meaning of Egyptian origin but simply enigmatic pictures with deep, noble, even sacred meanings. (For examples of the word in this context, from c. 1570 Italy and 1603 Spain, see Ross Caldwell in the first post of http://www.tarotforum.net/showthread.php?t=94755; the first is an anonymous Discorso on the tarot from 1570 central Italy, for which see Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, edited and translated by Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi. p. 53 and p. 67 note 25.)


In Italian the Magician card was first called El Bagatella, meaning a person who did sleight of hand tricks. Regarding the word "bagatella" in a similar context, the 18th century historian Ludovico Muratori, in Dissertazioni sopra le antichità italiane (Vol. 2, 1751, pp. 171-172) quoted a 1298 poem. Marco Ponzi on Tarot History Forum found the rest of the sentence and translated it:
Lassovi la fortuna fella /Travagliar qual Bagattella:
Quanto più si mostra bella, /Come anguilla squizza via.

I leave to you wicked fortune/ Who acts like a Bagattella:
whenever she seems most beautiful,/ she slips away like an eel,
There was also La Bagatella, which meant "small thing"; with that association, he differed from a Mago, who was considered to be in league with supernatural powers. In French the word became Bateleur, referring to the quick-handed entertainer, possibly related to baton, and so a stick-wielder. It seems to me that “Magician” is a perfectly good English translation, as long as we do not give him an exalted status.

What Platonic allegory, or Neoplatonic "Name of God" might he depict? A Magician combines truth with illusion, and so, Platonically, being with non-being. In that way he is like the Demiurgos (a Greek word ordinarily meaning craftsman, artisan, artificer) of Plato’s Timaeus. This is a suggestion that Prof. Paolo Rossi mentions without discussion at the end of his essay "Ermetismo e Arte della Memoria", on the website of LeTarot (http://www.associazioneletarot.it/page.aspx?id=200); it seems to me a suggestion worth developing further. The divine name would be "Creator".

The Demiurge is the divine being that Plato posited as maker of our world, using the archetypes as a model and imposing them on recalcitrant matter in a complex way. The result, for our finite intelligence, is a mixture of truth and illusion, being and non-being. For us straight sticks appear bent when put into water, what is beautiful often appears ugly, and what is bad appears good. At the end of the Republic Plato even compared such illusions to those of a conjurer, i.e. someone engaging in "trickery" (602c-d). Earlier in the same work Plato had gone so far as to compare the world of the senses to shadows on the wall of a cave, artfully positioned by unseen performers, and from which it was necessary to turn away if one wanted to know the truth (514-516).

An essay on the tarot written anonymously around 1470 makes a somewhat similar comparison, affirming of the inventor of the tarot; the text, with a translation, was published under the editorship of Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, and Marco Ponzi, in Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essay on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, London, 2012, pp. 54-55 (here the translator has broken the sentence into two for the sake of clarity; however the result is not as clear as a literal translation, which I suggest in brackets):   
Gli posa appresso il Bagatello, percioche si come coloro, che con prestezza di mano giacando, una cosa per un' altro parer ci fanno, il che oltre alla maraviglia porge vana dilettatione, non essendo il suo fine altro che inganno cosi il Mondo allettando altrui sotto imagine di bello, et dilettevole promettendo contentezza, al fine da guai, et in guisa  di prestigiatore  non havendo in se cosa premanente ne durabile, con finta apparenza di bene, conduce a miserabil fine.
He placed the Bagat [in Italian, Bagattello] next to him [meaning the Fool], because,like those that play with swift hands, making one thing look like another one, causing wonder and a vain amusement, since his only goal is deception, in the same way, the world attracts the others [literally, attracting others] with images of beauty and delight, promising happiness at the end of trouble. [comma, not a period here]. As a juggler it contains [literally, "in the manner of a slight of hand artist, having"] nothing either permenent nor durable, and [it] leads to a miserable end, under the false appearance of good. 
Here the writer compares the world, not its creator, to a slight of hand artist. But for Plato--and indeed, the Christian--the world, as the play of shadows on a cave, also has a creator whose result is such illusions..

Why would such a presumably beneficent god, as Plato asserted in the Timaeus the demiurge was, introduce such illusions? If our world is like a cave and we face toward illusion and not toward truth, why did the demiurge not arrange for us to face toward truth when he made us? Plato merely says that the demiurge left the details of “fashioning the mortal bodies” of humans to the “younger gods” (Timaeus 42d), who apparently underestimated the power of chaotic motions of the elements to affect the souls of men so that “they become false and foolish” (44a). Proper education can prevent such an outcome.

But we can ask the question again: why would a beneficent god have left such an important task in such incompetent hands? I cannot see where Plato gave an explicit answer. One possibility is in terms of the Greek conception of virtue, arete, which Plato shares (see Republic 353b). A thing's virtue is its excellence in terms of a goal for which it is to be used: e.g. a sword's sharpness is judged by its ability to cut in battle more effectively than other tools, or even other swords. There are different measures of effectiveness: penetrating to vital organs, perhaps, or cutting through armor, if that is a factor--the best is that which  can accomplish it best, In the case of humans' particular excellence, the ability to reason, the more difficult the problem it can solve, the better it is.

In the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oration gave a more Christian answer to the problem I am posing: God gave everyone the power to make of themselves what they will.  God has given everyone the power to distinguish good from evil. If they choose evil and to be on the level of the animals, when they could choose good and be at the level of the angels, that is their choice. If so, it is not the world that creates the illusions, but our own imaginations, seeing the world in terms of our animal appetites.

To this can be added the wisdom of the Book of Job. It is easy to be devout if our faith is never tested. The greater the test, the greater the merit.  If we are surrounded by illusions and temptations, it is for the sake of  developing a goodness higher even than that of the angels. This answer is much like the one I imagined for Plato.

In this scenario, God made us susceptible to the transitory and illusory things of the world, but also gave us the tools by which to separate truth from illusion:  the eternal archetypes and the power of reason. With them we can get past the Magician’s illusions, which depend on our trust in the senses, and live a life based on Truth. If the Magician is a Devil tempting us, he is also an aspect of God's goodness.

 The earliest known Magician card (1450s, at right above) has objects similar to the four suit signs on his table: the wand to Staves, the round objects to Coins, the knives to Swords, and the cups to Cups. This is a feature that continues in the Cary Sheet (far left) and into the French decks of the 17th and 18th centuries (at right, Conver, 1761 Marseille, as reproduced by Héron, Paris).

These symbols were made by some writers and artists to correspond, in various ways, to the four elements that make up the world and so, ultimately, the physical conditions in which we find ourselves at birth and after. One example from the 15th century is at left (my image is reproduced from Laurinda Dixon's Bosch). The only object missing is a cup for water. Thus the suit-objects become the elements, the world’s and our own material constituents, which the Demiurge combines to produce our bodies. .

There is also a strange hat at the end of the Magician's table, which is reminiscent of the cloth covering the chalice of the Eucharist. (In the "Marseille" pattern, what corresponds is a purse.) This might suggest the special cards, the trumps or "major arcana", representing the archetypes by which we can triumph over the elements in the "game of life". The players get from the divine dealer combinations of cards of both sorts; symbolically, then, the Magician is the demiurgic power bestowing on the soul both the archetypes and the material conditions of life.

This interpretation of the Magician puts him in a rather more exalted position than that of a young street performer. However in the Gospel of John the same being by whom “all things were made”, there called the Logos, came to earth as an itinerant preacher of humble origins. He, too, was a magician, in the sense of doing things by mysterious means.

A preacher and sometime bishop in 1529 England, Hugh Latimer, in fact made the analogy between Jesus and a card-dealer, in a game with ordinary cards in which one suit is designated trumps. He said (Selected Sermons of Hugh Latimer, 1906 edition, p. 6):
And for because I cannot declare Christ's rule unto you at one time, as it ought to be done, I will apply myself according to your custom at this time of Christmas: I will, as I said, declare unto you Christ's rule, but that shall be in Christ's cards. And whereas you are wont to celebrate Christmas in playing at cards, I intend, by God's grace, to deal unto you Christ's cards, wherein you shall perceive Christ's rule. The game that we will play at shall be called the triumph, which if it be well played at, he that dealeth shall win; the players shall likewise win; and the standers and lookers upon shall do the same; insomuch that there is no man that is willing to play at this triumph with these cards, but they shall be all winners, and no losers.
He then went on to give details about “Christ’s cards”, which turn out to be the precepts of “Christ’s rule” plus the trumps, which are hearts, i.e. obeying Christ with all one’s heart. In the game of life, Christ is in the position of dealer, giving to everyone at birth the cards they need to win at the end, even, doing Plato one better, coming to earth to remind people of what they may have forgotten. The world-weary look on the Magician’s face hints at the world’s failure to take his words to heart. (The sermon, written by a nascent Protestant, was vilified by later Catholic writers. For details, see Andrea Vitali’s online essay “A Clownish Sermon 1529” and my addendum there.)

A similar analogy, although this time with God as the other player, was made in an anonymous poem printed in Márgenes literarios del juego: una poética del naipe siglos XVI-XVIII, by Jean-Pierre Etienvre  (p.62), "Romance del juego del trunfo". It begins (as posted on Tarot History Forum by Marco Ponzi, who also did the translation):
Hombre I Dios juegan al trunfo,
cielo i mundo es la baraja,
ponense ambos a la mesa,
i Dios reparte las cartas.

Man and God play “trunfo”,
the sky and the world are the deck,
they both sit at the table,
and God deals the cards.
I would guess that by “sky” the poet means the trumps, and by “world” he means the suits. God is impossible to beat, of course. But perhaps he will sometimes let the most meritorious people win, by his grace.  That is one difference between Plato and Roman Catholicism. In Plato's case, if one doesn't "win", the cosmos gives one other chances in new incarnations, other tries at the game, so to speak. In Roman Catholic Christianity, God gives all but the most saintly souls a chance to pay what is owed, in a place beyond this world called Purgatory.

In relation to Jesus as a demiurgic "dealer", the earliest known Magician, of 1450s Milan, bears a a rather striking facial resemblance to the depictions of Jesus in the two Bembo paintings I cited in relation to the Virgin Mary, the Coronation and the Ascension: they repeat the similar light-colored beards and doleful faces we see on the card. In the other extant Bembo cards, the only other similar face is that of the King of Cups in the c. 1442 deck (near left). Given that  the Ace of Cups is a baptismal font, I think it likely that Cups is meant as the suit of religion, among other things, and of course the King of religion is Christ

 In other Bembo art, however, there are others with similar faces and beards: a St. Mark in the Cavalcabò Chapel of St. Agostino, Cremona (at left, from Tanzi, Archigoticissimo Bembo, 2011, p. 70), also the second king in an Adoration, and a couple of King Davids in an illuminated manuscripts (all in Bandera and Tanzi 2013). These are all related to Christ in some way, and so do not invalidate putting the Magician in the same company; but then most surviving Bembo art does relate to Christ in one way or another.

But how is one to tell the “good” cards, i.e. the “majors”, from the “bad” ones, the “minors”? In a card game, it is by knowing the rules ahead of time. Plato actually has something similar: one recognizes the archetypes by remembering them, from before one enters the world.  Things in this world call them to mind. There is a famous passage in Plato’s Meno (82b-86b) in which Socrates draws geometric diagrams in the dust and asks a slave boy questions until the boy comes to recognize a geometrical truth that goes against what he thought at first. The source of that knowledge is not the crude drawing in the dust, but the reasoning the boy makes about it. Yet it is not just a matter of logic either. Socrates concludes that it can only be a recollection of something already known, but not in this world of uncertainties  

This point is illustrated in an ancient Platonist text popular in the Renaissance called the Tablet of Cebes (translated into Latin in 1497; Cebes is one of Socrates' friends in Plato's Phaedo). In it the custodian of a temple describes to a visitor a fresco in front of them that shows an old man handing out sheets of paper to naked infants entering a garden. These sheets are presumably a map of the garden, just as in the fresco; representative temptations are shown at the bottom, and the virtues toward the top. It maps a literal "overcoming" of the vices. In a 1523 Hans Holbein engraving of the scene (which his publisher oddly made the frontispiece of a work by Strabo), the old man is labeled “Genius”, meaning a spirit, no doubt taken from Socrates’ account of his daemon. He does not look much like the tarot Magician, but in Platonic terms he plays a similar role.

 A few 16th century writers interpreted the card in a way that lends itself to the image of the man at the gate of the garden of life. Alciato, 1544 (Parerga iuris: libri VII. posteriores, p. 90), called the card “Innkeeper”; the Sicilian cards to this day show what looks like an innkeeper, although the title is “the young men”. The idea of the innkeeper is also in s c. 1565 Discorso on the tarot by Piscina. For Piscina the Bagatto (his term) is the innkeeper at the “Inn of the Fool”, as opposed to the “Inn of the Looking-Glass”. It seems to me that the point of this metaphor is that the the cards represent the company inside the inn; as such, people used to interpret them in a reflective way, as a teacher of wisdom, but now they have forgotten all that.


Love, Amore, was the early name for the card. It is also, for ps.-Dionysius, a name of God, expressing his yearning to be with his creatures and for them to be with him (Divine Names 13, 712A-B):
And in truth, it must be said too that the very cause of the universe is the beautiful, good superabundance of his benign yearning for all is also carried outside of himself in the loving care he has for everything. He is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself.
In this conception, love descends to humans as a divine force in us that leads people toward God. In Plato's Symposium (Joyce translation, 211a-b), the object of yearning, in Greek, love as eros (also the name of the god), is Beauty, from lower to ever higher levels, until one has a vision of the “eternal oneness” which is beyond words or images.  When we love people, Plato says, what we love is their beauty, whether a beautiful body or a beautiful soul (in which case there was the Greek philia, of friendship), which in turn is a reflection of the “everlasting loveliness” (211a). There is a “heavenly ladder” (211c) that goes from physical beauty to the beauty of souls to the beauty of institutions and the sciences to Beauty itself, beyond all images and words.

Cupid's blindfold on the 1450s card is a standard medieval attribute, signifying how "love is blind", i.e. it leads one to ignore facts that anyone else can seel; all that is seen, in other words, is the archetype. . In the early Milan cards, no hidden Platonic meaning is necessarily present; it is simply a courtly love scene that is susceptible to a Platonic interpretation. On the other hand, especially when the burst of light is added (see below), the blindfold, and also the wings, might suggest that love is of divine inspiration, of a Beauty beyond the senses. The lady's green glove, added in the 1450s card, would then be a symbol of the immortality to be achieved through love, whether on the level of physical or spiritual progeny (Symposium 208-209).

At some point a third person (apart from Cupid) was added, of ambiguous gender, perhaps at first a priest (in Vieville, c. 1650 Paris, far left), then more feminine (at left, Noblet, c. 1650 Paris, near left). He or she adds other Platonic dimensions to the card. For one thing, just as the male figure on the Pope card dedicates the seekers to God, the older figure on the Lovers card (now plural) reminds us that Beauty is also to be found in each other, supplementing eros with philia, the kind of friendship that involves lifelong mutual devotion. 

For Plato love of another person could be heterosexual on the material and ethical level, with progeny of the flesh or of fame and virtue (208). On the higher level, of the mind and mental or spiritual progeny, he speaks in terms of a male couple. Whether the gender assignments had to be that way he does not say. The humanists debated whether one could have a relationship on the higher level with a person of the opposite sex, and also whether that person could be the same as the one with which one had children. (For some quotations, see my online essay "Dionysus and the Historical Tarot", part A6.)

To me the laurel leaves on the older lady of the Noblet suggest that she is Honor giving them a lecture on what is expected of a couple in marriage. If there is a frown on the young lady's face, perhaps that is because the older lady finds her deficient. With her hand to the young man's heart, she does not deny human deficiency, but expresses that her love is sincere, of the heart. Another interpretation of the card has the scene a "Choice of Hercules" between virtue and vice. That allegory derives from a text by Plato's contemporary Xenophon (Memorabilia 2.1.21-30). I have trouble seeing either lady as fitting Xenophon's description of vice, with her "plumpness and softness" and "robe through which her beauty would readily show itself"; the allegory nonetheless does express a Platonic theme, which I have already discussed in relation to the Magician card, the choice between honorable and dishonorable love. In that case, the young woman's frown might be her sense of being rejected by the man, who senses that her placing of her hand on his heart is insincere. In Platonic myth, these alternatives correspond to the desires of the two horses of the chariot of the soul, as I shall try to explain in relation to the tarot's Chariot card (in Italian Carro, French Chariot, which specifies the vehicle used in triumphal parades that is universally shown on the card).

Plato’s allegory of the Charioteer is in his Phaedrus, of which Leonardo Bruni published the relevant part in 1424 and again, with the Apology and other dialogues, in 1428 (Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 1 p. 67). These translations would not have gone unnoticed. Bruni, Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, "was, on good authority, the best-selling author of the 15th century", Hankins says (Humanism of Leonardo Bruni, p. 45). His letters, including at least one on Plato’s teachings on love, also circulated widely. After Bruni other commentators, most notably Ficino, wrote on both the Phaedrus and the Symposium.

Plato’s chariot, representing the human soul, has a charioteer and two winged horses, one white and noble and the other dark and ignoble. In the heavens before his earthly life, the charioteer, from his high vantage point, sees the gods and archetypes riding in similar chariots, but with horses that are both white, beyond a wall that separates them from him. Then disaster strikes. The ignoble dark horse pushes the chariot downward, and the closer they are to the earth the weaker the wings become, until they disappear entirely. On earth the ignoble horse remains disobedient and drags the chariot toward a beautiful body hoping to satisfy its lust. But then something unexpected happens, if the charioteer has not been corrupted by life in the body too long (251a, Hackforth translation):
But when one who is fresh from the mystery, and saw much of the vision, beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there come upon him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, and then reverence as at the sight of a god, but for fear of being deemed a very madman he would offer sacrifice to his beloved, as to a holy image of deity.
This vision moves the charioteer to exhort the noble horse in strong words and to apply the whip and bit to the ignoble horse, to prevent it from attaining its goal. This struggle between virtue and vice is depicted on a 1529 Italian medal with the words “Platonic Chariot” in Latin. Through such bouts of unrelenting pain the ignoble horse eventually learns to follow the lead of the noble horse, who follows the lead of the charioteer. 

Different parts of this allegory fit the Chariot card in each of three extant Milanese decks. The earliest. c. 1442 (far left), shows a chariot led by two horses. Even though both are white, one is disorderly, while the other lets itself be controlled by a groom. Neither has wings. On top is a beautiful lady bearing a large gold medallion with a Visconti emblem, a white dove in solar rays. Here we have, as in Plato’s allegory, a disorderly horse, an orderly horse, and a chariot. But unlike in the allegory, there are two humans, a man and a woman. Also, both horses are white; in the allegory, Plato has the disorderly one “dark” and the other white.

It seems to me that the image combines two thoughts in one—a common enough occurrence at that time. On the one hand, the horses are the white horses of the gods and archetypes, and the woman a heavenly archetype such as Chastity or Beauty. The Phaedrus speaks of the human charioteer as the soul before its descent to earth looking over a wall that separates mortal from immortal chariots, seeing across the wall "Beauty with her attendant Chastity” (254b) riding in a chariot with two white horses. Here one lady stands for all: Beauty itself, Chastity, and Virtue in general. On the other hand, the man standing next to the orderly horse is the rational part of the soul, leading the orderly horse, which in turn keeps the disorderly one within bounds. The man and the woman are likely meant to be the same figures as on the Love card. The card signifies that the man is rational and noble, and the woman the sum of feminine virtues.

As in the case of the Love card, I do not think we need assume that the man is assuring the woman of a "purely Platonic" relationship, as we would say--i.e., non-sexual. In the Symposium Plato allows the mutual satisfaction of physical desire, when done under honorable conditions, as part of the "lesser mysteries" (229a) of love. It is just the first rung of the ladder, after which comes the mutual love of beauty in the soul, and so on, until the vision of "Beauty itself". The "higher mysteries", however, cannot be enjoyed with another while one is also satisfying physical desire, Plato says in the Phaedrus (256). That is the condition of a soul whose ignoble horse keeps it earth-bound.

The 1450s Chariot card (near left above), is similar to the first, except that there is no groom and both horses have wings.That depiction portrays the situation of the chariots of the gods and archetypes. whose horses are both noble. As such, they have their wings for eternity, because there is no ignoble horse to pull them down. The wings on the two horses make this card a clearer representation of archetypal, heavenly Beauty or Virtue than the preceding design, which requires giving the horses a double role, as those of a human chariot on earth (whose horses are wingless) as well as a divine chariot in the heavens (and thus with two white horses).

I  want to emphasize that I am presenting neither of these interpretations as necessarily the artist’s or designer’s intention (although it may have been). It is merely a natural interpretation for someone familiar with the Phaedrus myth, one that was then as well known as it was controversial, in part because of its references to pagan gods but mostly because it envisions love in explicitly male to male terms, which Bruni’s translation did its best to obscure. The virtues, at least in medieval art, were typically represented as women.

By the end of the 15th century a variation had been  introduced, visible in the Cary Sheet: one horse turns its head toward the other. That would be the formerly disorderly horse, now tamed, following the lead of the noble one. Although we do not have the rest of the card, and we do not know what color the horses would have been, the same design appears in the Noblet of c. 1650 Paris and afterwards. On the Noblet, the horse with the turned head was red (the color has faded). Redis a suitable color for the passionate and impulsive part of our nature.


In the Phaedrus, love is characterized as a madness; likewise the early name for the card of the Fool was Matto, the Madman. Again there is a language problem. In English, a fool is primarily someone who exercises poor judgment, not necessary someone mentally defective. A Matto, however, is just such a person; the word also applies to someone in a frenzy, drug-induced or otherwise. The Italian Folle, like the French Fou, takes in all these cases. In Plato, it is Madness that is mainly of interest.

For Plato there were two basic types of madness. Bruni, the Phaedrus’s first translator, wrote about the distinction in a 1429 letter, (Ep. 6.1 in Hankins Plato in the Italian Renaissance, pp. 70f), one that Hankins says "already circulated widely even before Bruni published the first version of his collected letters around 1440" (Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance vol. 1 p. 149 n. 21). Bruni writes:
For, as we know from Plato, there are two species of madness, one flowing from human diseases--an evil and detestable thing of course--; the other from a divine alienation of the mind.
Of course our interest is in the second type, which he says is“from Venus, and arises from the contemplation of true Beauty”. After recounting the passage that I already quoted, about the charioteer/rational soul's shudder and sudden recall of divine Beauty through its image, Bruni says:
This violent seizing and capture of the mind is called Love, a kind of divine alienation [alienato] and forgetfulness [oblivio] of self [in id], a transferal into that whose beauty we admire. If you call this madness [furorem] and insanity [vesaniam], I would wholly agree, so long as you understand that no poet can be any good who is not seized by a "madness" of this sort [huiuscemodi furore correptum], nor can God be well and perfectly worshiped, except through this kind of mental alienation.
Around this time Bruni also wrote the Canzone a laude di Venere, Song in Praise of Venus (I thank Andrea Vitali for help in translation; there is a published translation, but it is too inaccurate):
Chi amor crede biasimare, il loda
quando insano e furente in suo dir chiama
colui che fervente ama;
perchè divin furore è ben perfetto.
La Sibilla non mai il vero isnoda,
se non quandà è furente, matta e grama.
è la divina trama
cerne il commosso, e non il sano petto,
e gli vaticinanti ch 'àn predetto
furente vider. Sicchè non è rio
il furor che da Dio
discende nella mente. E così amore
da Vener nasce, ed è divine furore.

He who thinks love to blame, praises it
when in his speech he calls insane and in furor
one who loves fervently;
because divine furor is very perfect.
The Sibyl never the truth unloosens,
except when she is in furor, mad and wretched;
it is the divine contriving that
picks the disordered and not the healthy breast,
and the prophets that predicted
saw in furor. So that it is not evil,
the furor that from God
descends into the mind. And so love
from Venus is born, and is divine furor.
Considering that this “furore” is what drives the soul toward the experience of more and more absract images of Beauty, ascending step by step by means of its passion, the tarot sequence can perhaps be seen as the “game of the Fool” in this laudatory sense, that of the madness of being possessed by spirit, in which the sequence itself shows the way forward.

The first known Matto is the PMB card (far left). That he is afflicted by divine madness is suggested by the white feathers in his hair, forming something a little like a halo. There are seven of them, which Moakley associated with the seven weeks of Lent, a time of purification (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family, 1966, p. 114). It is also a time of penance, befitting someone who has earlier acted foolishly. (The club seems inspired by a Stultia with feathers by Giotto, center left.)

Is the 1450s Matto brought to this state by remorse over his former folly (his culpable mistakes in life), or is he so intensely "responding to internal stimuli" (in the language of the modern mental health clinician) that he is unaware or uncaring of how he appears to others, his outer state mirroring his inner? Both seem likely. Madness involves disintegration of the personality, in Greek drama exemplified by Sophocles' Oedipus or Euripides' Orestes and Hecuba. But there can also be reintegration, most memorably exemplified in Oedipus at Colonus. For a Renaissance example, we need only think of King Lear on the heath, spouting truth in madness, experiencing in scattered images his awareness of his foolishness when sane. A crisis in one's mode of being leads to a disordered mind, which can allow a new way of being to emerge.

This disorder, to which the influx from a divine source descends, also relates the Fool card to the allegory of the Timaeus, in which the Demiurge creates the cosmos by putting the previously existing disorder into order ("out of disorder he brought order", 30a). In such an interpretation the Fool would be seen as the first card, the preexisting disorder which the Magician as Demiurge shapes according to the archetypes of the Divine Mind. Thereby the mind of the Fool, perhaps paradoxically, may attain a height above this world.

In this connection, I notice a resemblance between the PMB Matto's face and two "Martyr Saints" attributed to Bonifacio or Ambrogio Bembo, c. 1450 (from Bandera and Tanzi, p. 81). These gaunt faces of unfathomable inwardness are not the way saints were normally portrayed. It is reminiscent of ps.-Dionysus's account of Moses' ascent on Mount Sinai at the end of his Mystical Theology (newly translated in 1436). He interprets Moses's climb as that of "walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at last can rise" (1001A). But then:
...he breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.
Ps.-Dionysius makes this point in another way in a passage in Divine Names. Citing St. Paul in I Cor. 1:25: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” (865B), he explains (865C):
And here the divine apostle is said to be praising God for his “foolishness,” which in itself seems absurd and strange, but uplifts [us] to the ineffable truth which is there before all reasoning.
Corresponding to this interpretation, the Fool card is without number, as though to indicate its lack of confinement or limitation in human concepts.  This same idea runs through the later Platonists of antiquity: above the Demiurge is the Divine Mind, above that the One,  and perhaps something else, but eventually nothing that can be described in words

In I Corinthians, the Vulgate's word for foolishness is stultum, not furore; and it is meant as the opposite of wisdom, sapientius:"quia quod sultum est Dei Sapientius est hominibus" (For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom). The rest of the sentence is "...and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength". From this it seems clear that it is God as Jesus that Paul is talking about, and also the God who possessed him on the road to Damascus. Like Socrates heeding his daemon, Jesus was indifferent to the wisdom of the world, which would have cautioned against his angering the authorities. In the same way, the martyr saints cared more about their unity with God than for their lives on earth.

An attitude at least of indifference is retained in the "Marseille" style Fool (Noblet at left, c. 1650 Paris), who seems lost in thought and does not appear to notice the animal attacking his virility.

That the tarot Fool was in fact seen as God is suggested by the final tercet of a "tarrochi" sonnet of Ferrara 1530-1560 cited by Andrea Vitali in his essay "Tarot in Literature I" (here):

    Per poter dire i buon tarocchi mej
    Saran, s’avien ch’io giuochi, et questi uno
    Vo trarre il Matto che ‘è cervel divino.

    So that to be able to say the good tarots will be
    Mine, I have to play, and this one card
    I draw will be the Fool, which is [the] divine brain.

In the Italian trick-taking game played with the cards, as far as can be determined from later accounts, the rule for using the Matto suggests an allegory like that I have been describing. The card was so weak in power it could not win against any other card, even the lowest numeral card; so also is the fool or madman in relation to the world. Second, it could be played at any time; similarly, the madness of love may come when we least expect it. Third, because it could be played at any time it was useful as a kind of sacrificial card, to play instead of a more powerful card. It is a kind of sacrifice that also is not a sacrifice, because the card then usually returned to the one who played it, just as Christ, the ineffable God on earth, sacrificed himself for the beings that God created in “his own image””—and just as Socrates, following his “daemon”, sacrificed himself for the good of Athens and was immortalized by history in return. 


In the Middle Ages the Wheel of Fortune (Ruota della Fortuna, Roue de la Fortune) represented the changeable nature of the world, in which we should therefore place no trust. In one of the early Milan decks, the Brera-Brambilla of c. 1444, the one going up and the one on top have donkey’s ears, representing their foolish desires. The one going down and the one on the bottom have lost their asinine attribute; they are wiser for having seen the illusoriness of their ambition.

In Plato’s philosophy, the correspondence  is to the ephemeral nature of opinion or belief; what seems true at one time seems false at another. Without a solid basis in eternal archetypes, belief is like the “house built upon the sand” of the gospels.

These donkey ears on the card were continued in some 16th century Venetian cards. In the French decks all three of the figures (they left out the bottom one) were  made entirely into animals, perhaps to show how the striving after material goals reduces humanity to the animal level. Even here, however, the head of the animal going down is more human-looking than the one going up, which now is given the entire head of an ass.

In the “Marseille" order of the trumps, first documented in the Catelin Goeffroy tarot of 1558 Lyon , the virtue of Fortezza/La Force came next after the Wheel. This position is further on in the sequence than it was in other early centers of the tarot, even Milan and Pavia; all of them put it before the Wheel, near the other two virtues.

However if the Wheel is seen as radical change, where what appeared desirable is suddenly either beyond reach or recognized as illusory, then some of the traditional imagery of the virtue takes on a specific meaning having to do with its place in the order. If a lady puts her hands on the mouth of a lion (as we see first in the c. 1442 deck), we can see the lion as a solar animal, and as such in Christian symbolism representing not only Strength (Forza in Italian, Force in French) but God. Fortitude, in Italian Fortezza d'anima, strength of soul, the virtue of the lady, is then putting one’s trust in God rather than power devoted to sensual ends. The symbolic equivalence of the sun with God goes back at least to Plato's Republic (532a-d) where the sun is an image of the Good, Plato's highest archetype.

 The c. 1480 Milanese hand-painted card (, a typically, shows a man beating on a cowering lion with a club. This is not the moral virtue of Fortitude; it illustrates the other aspectof the Italian Fortezza, that of physical power. Fortitude, in contrast, was exemplified best by "the strength of Christ", as Paul had put it (1Cor. 1:25) , and of the holy martyrs of the Church.

Another way in which Fortezza was represented, as a lady next to a column, sometimes broken, and sometimes with a lion (at left, the "Mantegna", of Venice or Ferrara, and "Charles VI", of Florence, both c. 1470), can take both interpretations. The lion and the column associate the lady with Samson, who killed a lion with his bare hands (physical strength) but then was laid low by Delilah, cutting Samson’s own mane-like hair. Samson meets this reversal, similar to that on the Wheel, by reorienting himself toward the God of his fathers, enduring ignominy (the moral virtue of Fortitude) until his leonine hair grows out again and he can topple the columns of s pagan temple. He represents not only brute force but Fortezza in the other sense, corresponding to the English "Fortitude" and the Italian "Corregio", that of firm courage, through pain, suffering, and a recognition that physical death is not to be feared against evil, exemplified in the temple he destroys--or by an unboken, enduring column as sometimes accompanied the lady (as in the Rosenwald, here, and the minchiate, here, both probably Florentine).

In the early lists of Milan and Pavia, the positions of the Vecchio and Fortezza were reversed. It makes little difference. If Fortezza is before the Ruota, the symbolism is to prepare one for the necessary reorientation in what comes next. If the Vecchio is first, then it is he who advises of the change in orientation. As though to suggest the equivalence, the folds in the 18th century French cards. the Hermit's robe acquired lines at knee level suggesting a rising sun, again a reminder to orient oneself to God. And either way, the symbolism is the Platonic one of the Sun with the archetype of the Good.

Another French innovation is the name change; hermits were considered to be in a special relationship to God, enabling them to see higher and further than others. There is also a change of spelling in the third French card, from "l'Ermite" to "l'Hermite". "Ermite" is the usual spelling of the French word for a hermit; Why the change? Perhaps to associate the figure with Hermes, i.e. either Hermes Trismegistus, the wise Egyptian demigod of the Corpus Hermeticum, an aged figure whom in that way he physically resembles, or the god Hermes, messenger of the gods to humans.

Let us turn to the l'Appeso/le Pendu, Italian and French for "the Hanged Man". A man hanging upside down by one leg was in medieval and Renaissance Italy the symbol of a traitor, and indeed, Traditore was one of the early Italian titles of the card.

In this spirit the card was even identified, in one 16th century poem, with the missing virtue of prudence (for the reference, see Andrea Vitali's essay "The Hanged Man: Betrayal and Prudence', online at http://www.associazioneletarot.it/page.aspx?id=124&lng=ENG, as I indicated earlier). Not that the Traitor was prudent, presumably, but that he was imprudent.  In the same spirit, his image in the "Charles VI" tarot (of 15th century Florence, figure 1 of Andrea's essay)  has him weighed down by money bags, perhaps suggesting Judas.

But from Plato there is another meaning: someone who goes against what is conventionally expected, even at the cost of sacrificing his life, as Plato in the Apology portrays Socrates doing; the humanists would have seen his act of self-sacrifice (taking hemlock rather than disobeying the law by escaping) as of the type more exaltedly represented by Christ. In this interpretation his allegiance is to virtue in a higher sense than that of convention as defined by social institutions. In fact the father of Francisco Sforza himself had had “Hanged Man" posters put up against him by a Pope, as Gertrude Moakley pointed out (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966, p. 95). Later that Pope was declared an Antipope, while Attendola Sforza’s withdrawal of support helped end the schism.

On the  earliest extant card, that of 1450s Milan, details suggesting the sacrifice that brings renewal are the hole under his head, as though to plant a seed, the green color of his leggings, and his halo-like hair. The green leggings were not preserved in the "Marseille" pattern, but the halo-like hair and the hole were.

But in addition, there were in its earlier versions 11 notches on the two poles. Judas, hanging from that one, would have in that case been the 12th. He was known historically as the "12th disciple". The Charles VI tarot's depiction of the upside down man clutching money bags suggests that interpretation, too--Judas and his 30 pieces of silver. So does the number of the card, 12 in all the early lists.

On the other hand there is also the fact that his legs form a cross, suggestive of Jesus, and (for the 1450s) the X that was the first letter of the word "Christos" in Greek (Χριστός). The X is a natural enough position for a man in that position to take; the cross is not. But the 19th century occultists cannot have been the first to draw attention to that odd position: Alciati in 1544 actually named the card "Crux" with a capital "C" in his list of the trumps, in backwards order (for the whole poem and its source, see Andrea Vitali's essay "Temperance", here):
 Mundus habet primas, croceas dein Angelus alis:
Tum Phoebus, luna, & stellæ, cum fulmine dæmon:
Fama necem, Crux ante senem, fortuna quadrigas:

(The world has the primate, then the golden winged angel;
Then Phoebus, the moon and the stars, with lightning the devil demon;
Fame precedes death, the Cross the old man, fortune the chariot;...
I will talk about Temperance as "Fama" later. But as for "Crux", the legs are already portrayed in that shape in a 1410 fresco at St. Petronius in Bologna, there associated with "idolatria" (figure 5 here). I expect that as a representation of the cross it was there to remind the viewer of what the idolator, the traitor to God, has rejected; Judas would be sn example par excellence. Whether that was true for Alciati I don't know. In the c. 1650 Noblet, that the two poles are colored gray and green (shown above in Flornoy's restoration, with the original here), of death and life, could imply either.

Although "Traitor" and "Judas" (a word meaning the same thing in ordinary vituperation) was the traditional meaning, the example of Muzio Attendelo turns it on its head (so to speak). Jesus also was a traitor—to the Sanhedrin who ruled the Judaic religion. And the later "Marseille" images, such as the Conver 1761 (2nd above, right), had 12 notches on the sides, all colored blood-red, the color of sacrifice; the 13th at the top would then be Christ, the Hanged Man again as the sacrifice that brings regeneration. His halo-like hair and the hole in the ground, as though for a seed, better fit that interpretation, too.

There is also the matter of the odd, feather-like portrayal of the man's fingers, present in the Cary Sheet and the earlier "Marseille" images, as though the man had wings (above, a drawing of Cupid from Alberti's De Edificio, published in the late 15th century, and the Dodal of c. 1701; see also the Cary Sheet and Noblet images, 3rd above, and a 1616 Stuttgart engraving, of which the detail is at left, posted by M. J. Hurst and described here; the suggestion about wings was made by Al Craig). Of course both devils and angels had wings. If the man is Judas, is it possible, however, that even he was being portrayed as someone who sacrificed himself, at least his honor and discipleship, in a just cause. "The Son of Man has now been glorified" the Gospel of John (13:31, Douay-Rheims translation) has Jesus say to the disciples just after Judas, to whom he had "predicted"--or assigned--the fatal task in handing him the "sop" of soup-soaked bread.

In Platonism, Socrates was the exemplar of self-sacrifice in the name of a higher truth. The road to Truth started with the critique of conventional ideas, the activity for which Socrates was condemned to death. The effect, as his disciple Plato described allegorically, was a personal “conversion” in the original meaning of the Latin convertere, which meant “to turn around completely”. That is what we see on the Wheel, continued in the Hanged Man, a reversal of direction, turning him upside down.  It is also what the prisoners in Plato’s “allegory of the cave” do when they manage to loosen their shackles: they "turn around" (Republic 515c, 532b) from the shadows on the cave wall and look the other way, "upward", Plato says, toward the causes of those shadows, beyond which lies the entrance to the cave. 

The Death card (Morte, Mort) focuses us on the brevity of life and its vanities. Beneath the sickle on the first known card, c. 1442, are emperors and popes. At the same time death marks a return to what Plato called the world of being. Socrates’ last words before death, as related in the Phaedo, are to ask his friends to sacrifice a cock for him to Aesclepius. Aesclepius was the god of healing; thus for Plato physical death is the healing from the sickness of living in a world permeated by non-being. Appropriately, the “Marseille” image depicts heads that seem alive, hands aspiring upwards, and a Death that might merely be clearing out the weeds.The Tower card, with its fire and falling or fallen figures, will be more of the same.


At this point, unexpectedly, the Milan order, continued in France, has Temperance. This position in the order is not verified until sometime in the first half of the 16th century, in Alciato, 1544, and Susio, sometime 1525-1540 or 1570 (Vitali and Berti, Le carte di corte. I tarocchi 1987, p. 106 n. 29); so that position may not have been the original one in Milan. Yet the fact that in the Cary Sheet Temperance is right next to the Devil and the Tower, in that order from right to left, suggests, as Dummett observed in Il mondo e l'angelo, that it was there at least by the time of that sheet, around 1500.
Why would these three appear at this point in the sequence, after the Death card? Temperance is especially puzzling. Why does a soul no longer afflicted by the body need a virtue for the curbing of the excesses from the lower parts of the soul influenced most by the body, as Plato had characterized that virtue? In other centers of the tarot--Florence, Ferrara, Bologna--Temperance was put in the vicinity of Love and the Chariot, as though to warn there of excesses in love or in enjoying the fruits of triumph. That makes Platonic sense.

But actually, at least for the later Platonists such as Apueleius and Plutarch, the soul after death was thought to be in danger of remaining attached to its life in the body and so "haunting" its former abode, pursuing ancient passions and so in need of detachment. Also, there were many terrors and pleasures yet to come, for which self-control by reason would be advisable, as we will see when we come to the Devil and Tower cards.

The image of a liquid being poured from one vessel to another could also serve other associations. As the adding of water to wine, there is an association to the Eucharist of Christianity, whose liquid plus wafer corresponds to the nectar and ambrosia which Plato says the chariot horses are fed in heaven, and which the gods themselves needed to eat and drink to remain immortal. There is also the idea, expressed in Dante (Purgatorio XXV 80-108), that the soul in dying exchanges one body for another, a body of air for a body made of earth and water. In this new body, the soul can either stay where it is, haunting the earth, or rise higher.

In the Middle Ages, Temperance was imagined, in addition to the image of pouring from one vessel to antoher, that of a torch and a vessel. Talking about a 9th century manuscript with the four cardinal virtues (at right below), Katzenellenbogen (Allegories of the virtues and vices in mediaeval art, p. 55):
Temperance holds a torch and pours out a jug full of water, for, as Julianus Pomerius says: "Ignem libidinosse voluptatis extinguit". Footnote: De vita contemplativa lib. III, cap. 19 (Migne P[atrologia] L[atina] 59, 502).
"It extingishes the fire of pleasurable lust", is my rough transltion. Another example is a "Tree of the Virtues and Vices" of the book in the title of The Psalter of Robert de Lisle in the British Library, by Lucy Freeman Sandler, of which my scan is here.

This convention seems to have been the model for a non-standard card probably done for Alessandro Sforza, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, which shows water being poured on something, a suggestive torch or cup, held just above the figure's genital area (at right). The figure is reclining on the back of a stag. This, too, reflects medieval convention. The stag was an image of "longing for God", as in Psalm  41:2:
As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee, O God. 
An example is in the 13th century St. Albans Psalter (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/stalbanspsalter/english/commentary/page154.shtml). The virtue not only helps separate the soul from bodily passions, but leads it upwards in the ascent. ( I have more on this theme in another blog, at http://deerontemperance.blogspot.com/).

One striking feature of the "Marseille" style card, starting with Noblet in c. 1650 (http://www.tarot-history.com/Jean-Noblet/images/Noblet-original/14-lemperance.jpg), is that the lady on the card has sprouted wings. That also suggests the traditional characterization of "longing for God" and the power of the Eucharist, and the virtue, to facilitate that longing.

When Alciati in his poem (cited earlier in this section) calls the 14th card "Fama"--echoed by Vieville of c. 1650 Paris, who gave the lady a banner proclaiming "Fama Sol ", i.e. "Fame Sun" or "Fame Alone". Here it must be remembered that "Fama" means not just Fame but Glory, in both a worldly and otherworldly sense. It is also the Triumph immediately after Death in Petrach's sequence of poems that comprise Il Trionfi, about which I will say more later.

What corresponds to the salvific Eucharist in Plato is philosophy, literally the love of wisdom. By its means the soul could separate from the illusions of the body and undertake an “upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm” (Republic 517b, Grube translation), which he compares to someone ascending from a cave below ground into the sunlight. Then after death, if the person’s life has been lived in accord with the archetypes—a life in which reason is control, i.e. of temperance--the soul at death would ascend, as Plato says in the Phaedrus, as though on regenerated wings and fly to the realm of the archetypes from which it had originally descended.. Philosophy, the “art of dying” as Plato had Socrates say, was the first step in the transition from one world to another.

These Platonic metaphors were well known.  Piscina in his 1565 Discorso on the tarot (in Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi, already cited) stated that the cards after Death signifed the soul's ascent to heaven. That view also fits the Neoplatonist accounts readily available in Latin, for example that of Macrobius (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio). The background image is the medieval view of the cosmos, as depicted in the so-called “cosmograph”, a picture of the universe as a series of concentric spheres around the earth  The first part of the journey could be taken in the aerial (or "pneumatic") body, but the Platonists also spoke of an “ethereal” (or "astral") body. Macrobius describes it as the body with which the soul descended at birth, and to which “ethereal” accretions from the planets attach and weigh it down (Scipio, English translation p. 133). After death the soul ascends as far as its life in the body has allowed it to throw off these accretions. It was also thought that before death one could ascend in contemplation to these levels, including ones above the visible universe. Besides the Platonists' testimony, the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, and other prophets were proof.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, some cosmographs began by showing the four elements as spheres, with earth in the center and the other three around it. Among many others, at left is an illustration in a book of music theory from around the time of the Cary Sheet, 1496 . The elements are labeled at the bottom; the planetary spheres are named on the right.  Many cosmographs went higher, through the nine choirs of angels posited by pseudo-Dionysius. Above the fixed stars, Dante's Paradiso had the "Primum Mobile", (First Moved) before the final sphere of the "Prima Causa" (First Cause), also called the Empyrean.  It was also thought that even before death some could reach the heights in meditation, of which Dante's poem is perhaps a description.

The first sphere above the earth was water, appropriately for a card showing  the pouring of water. After water, the next spheres, still below the moon, were air and fire.


We might wonder how air could be the domain of the Devil, when in Dante's Inferno and countless church frescoes he was situated in Hell, below the earth. But in the medieval imagination demons also filled the air: frescoes showed demons flying through the air grabbing souls.

In the Cary Sheet, his earliest Milanese depiction, a devil (if not The Devil) is shown very much above ground, putting souls into a basket on his back.  The tarot Devil usually has functional-looking wings (at right, left to right: Cary Sheet, Noblet c. 1650 as restored by Noblet, Conver 1761).

Piscina, writing in c. 1565,  says of the card (p. 23 of Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi):
As Meleto said in answer to Socrates' question, they [the demons, demoni] are neither earthly nor celestial. It has been the opinion of many, and especially the Platonists, that the Demons are Spirits that are in the Air & are somehow in the middle between Gods and men).
Meletus was  the prosecutor at Socrates’ trial in Plato’s Apology. He does not say there that demoni, in Greek δαίμονας” (daimonas), are “neither earthly nor celestial”; he merely agrees with Socrates that they are either “gods or children of gods” (27d). The doctrine that demoni are “in the middle between gods and men” can be found in the Symposium (202e); whether that means spatially or in character is not clear. But by the time of the Roman-era Platonists, such as Apuleius (City of God Book 8 Chapter 15, discussing Apuleius), who took the next step of locating the demoni in the air. Similar to Piscina is Alciato in 1544, Milan or Pavia, who called the card "daemon".

Piscina called the next card, which we today call the Tower, by one of its early names, “Fire” (p. 23):
After the Demons, comes Fire, as the due mean between the stars, that are celestial, and mundane things.
Speaking of levels above the earth in terms of “means” is a Platonic conception, for example when Plato in the Timaeus argues that there must be two means between earth and fire as opposed to one, which he illustrates mathematically.

Another early name for the Tower card was sagitta, arrow. That referred to lightning, shown on every early version of the card presevering its top edge, striking from above. That is true even when there is no tower (above, left to right: Cary Sheet, a NE Italian 16th century card, Noblet of c. 1650 Paris, and Vieville, also c. 1650 Paris).  It is again from the region of fire. In the Bible, God uses such means to destroy the Tower of Babel and other symbols of worldly ambition, such as the house of Job’s son. The Bible also includes the descent of fire and hail from heaven in the Last Days as described in the Book of Revelation, which Augustine said was as much about the purification of our own souls as about the days before the Second Coming (City of God Book XX, Ch. 6, citing Jesus at John 5:23, “the hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live”). The Cary Sheet Tower card has globes similar to those in a 14th century French illuminated manuscript of the Apocalypse. While the imagery is Christian, there is a parallel Platonic interpretation in terms of the cosmograph.

Regarding both the Devil and the Tower, there is also the account of the Platonic allegorist Plutarch, of Athens in the first and second centuries of our era. He allegorically located Hades in the upper part of the air, which he surmised extended far above us, but still below the moon. In that region the soul was purified of its sins, if they were not too great.  I expect that demons would have abounded there, but he does not say.

Plutarch’s accounts are in a large collection of essays known as the Moralia. The humanist Filelfo had made a copy for himself during his time in Greece, where he had worked on behalf of Venice. After some years in Florence, he spent time in Siena and Bologna, then most of the rest of his life, starting in late 1439, in and around Milan, including, to escape the plague of 1450, Cremona (all in Robin, Filelfo in Milan). In 1438-1439 another copy of the Moralia was brought by the Greek delegation to Ferrara and Florence, where it was surely copied.

The relevant passages are in a couple of pages at the end of one essay and a half page of another. In the essay “On the Apparent Face in the Orb of the Moon”, the relevant part begins:
All soul, whether without mind or with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call "the meads of Hades," pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour.
Here there is no lightning; the air alone is sufficient to fumigate the souls suspended there.

Plutarch's other essay. “On the Daemon of Socrates”, describes this region more vividly. The river Styx starts in the upper region of the universe and passes through the region of air (591C):
As the Styx draws near, the souls cry out in terror, for many slip off and are carried away by Hades; others, whose cessation of birth [footnote 127: release from the cycle of birth and death] falls out at the proper moment, swim up from below and are rescued by the Moon, the foul and unclean excepted. These the Moon, with lightning and a terrible roar, forbids to approach, and bewailing their lot they fall away and are borne downward again to another birth, as you see.
In this version, the moon generates the lightning, as a way of sending souls back to the earth for another incarnation. The region of lightning is almost to the moon itself. The moon is here a judge of souls, although this moment will not be their Last Judgment. Even on the moon souls will not be safe, as we shall see.


In the tarot of Milan, the Star, Moon, and Sun are first seen in the six cards added to the 1450s deck, done in a style that suggests to art historians the 1480s. Those designs (not shown here), probably for a particular ruler, did not endure in the tarot cards that followed, as seen in the Cary Sheet. It is those images (below) that influenced the French designs of the 17th century.

They are, in every city of the early tarot, in the order Star, Moon, Sun, as they are in the Cary Sheet (going from right to left). This order is somewhat perplexing. The cosmograph invariably has the stars further from the earth than the planets. If so, why in the tarot does the Star come before the Moon and the Sun cards? Even if, as some say, the Star-lady is Venus, the card should at least come after the Moon.

This suggests to me that the cosmograph did not, at least at first, govern the placement of the celestials. The cards' order is that of increasing light. In fact all the cards from Devil to Angel can be seen in this way; from no light in the Devil (or just a torch, in the Marseille), to a brief fire from heaven in the Tower, to a persisting light in the Star, to a greater such light in the Moon and the Sun.

In Plato, this progression corresponds to the increasing light experienced by the prisoner in the "Allegory of the Cave". The prisoner is at first facing the end wall of a cave, his head and limbs fettered so that he cannot turn around (514a). Shadows dance on the wall in front of him, which he takes to be reality. Then he is freed so he can turn around (515c). He sees a fire, painful to the eyes, and that what he took for reality was really shadows made by cut-outs held in front of that fire. So we have the Devil and Fire cards. Beyond the fire, however, he sees the light of day at the entrance to the cave. Each step will pain his eyes, however, so that a period of adjustment is needed before going on. Plato has Socrates say (516a-b) of his experience outside the cave (Paul Shorey translation):
At first he would most easily discern the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of men and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself, more easily by night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than by day the sun and the sun's light. ... And so, finally, I suppose he would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water of phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place. 
Here things are presented in order of reality: first shadows, then the things and people of everyday life, then reflections of the more lasting things in the heavens, then the things themselves, in the order: stars, moon, sun, an order of increasing illumination. (I thank Patricia Fulbright for drawing this parallel to my attention, after I had read this passage a dozen times and still not seen it.) The sun is allegorically the Good, Plato's highest archetype.

Although the order Devil-Tower-Star-Moon-Sun is everywhere the same, 1480s Milan, below the Star is a woman looking up toward it, in a pose similar to that of the c. 1441's Hope lady toward a similar star there. In the c. 1460s Florence, it is two astronomers, one looking up and the other pointing to our left. In the 16th century minchiate (the expanded tarot with 40 special cards), it is a man on a camel heading toward a star on our left. A 16th century Bolognese card has three persons looking at stars. These all suggest the Star of Bethlehem.

The first appearance of the Marseille-style Star card patterns is precisely in the Cary Sheet of c. 1500. It shows a young person pouring liquid from two jars. Both empty into a large body of water; in the French cards, that feature  was changed to water and land. (above middle and right, Conver 1761 and Dodal c. 1701).

Water is a dominant theme of both the Star and Moon cards. Hence the Star card shows someone reminiscent of Aquarius the water-bearer, then sometimes represented then as an androgynous figure with two jugs, e.g. in this zodiac from Troyes, France, 1496. Here the signs for Cancer (a crustacean) and Gemini (twins) are also of interest, in relation to the Moon and Sun cards.

Water plays a role in the allegory of the cave as the medium for reflections. Aquarius, however, has no relationship that I can see to a Platonic allegory for the card, either as a zodiacal constellation or as a mythic figure.

The situation is different for the idea of two streams of water, abstracted temporarily from their carrier. An allegorical reference, I suspect, is to two streams, Lethe (Greek for "forgetfulness") and Eunoë ("good knowledge), originating from one spring at the top of the Mount of Purgatory, in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos 28-33 (online in English here). He comes to these streams in the “Earthly Paradise”, after first braving a ring of fire around it. If so, the planets and stars are still overhead, as depicted in a 1465 fresco done for the Duomo in Florence, where it remains. Below is the relevant part (the rest is easily seen online), where the artist, Domenico di Michelino, has put Adam and Eve. Above them is a cosmograph of concentric spheres, with the so-called "fixed stars" at the top on the left. The others, except for the Sun and Moon, also count as "stars" in a broader sense, as points of light in the night-time sky.
Dante’s two streams come from a long philosophical development. First is the Republic’s “Myth of Er”, which features the River Lethe, the water of forgetfulness (521a-b), from which souls drink before descending through an "opening" (514d) into a new incarnation on earth; next to it is another opening, where souls arrive from a life on earth "in squalor and dust". There is also  a second pair of openings, going to and from the heavens; here souls ascend through one and arrive "clean and pure" through the other..

Later Platonists, notably Porphyry and Macrobius, elaborated on this imagery; one of the openings was through the zodiacal sign of Cancer, to return to the earth, and another through the sign of Capricorn to ascend to heaven (e.g. Macrobius, English translation p. 134). Porphyry in his allegorical "Cave of the Nymphs", allegorized Homer's account in the Odyssey of a cave in which water nymphs weave wondrous cloth. The cave has two doors, one for men to descend, and the other for immotals. There are also jars in which bees deposit honey. In Porphyry's interpretation, the nymphs are weaving souls, and the sweetness of the honey is what draws the souls down to the sensuous pleasures of the earth. In addition, the honey both cleanses--in that way like the River Lethe-- and preserves--in that way an aid to immortality.. (For quotes and analysis, see Andrea Vitali's essay "The Stars", here.)

Dante, instead of having two doors, described two streams that he had to drink from at the top of the Mount of Purgatory: one temporarily made him forget his sins (making it also a cleansing agent) and another for remembering his good deeds, on the strength of which he could enter Paradise (i.e. immortality). Both came from a common spring watched over by a nymph.

A variant close in time to the Cary Sheet card is in a fresco at the Palazzo Te, Mantua c. 1528: a nymph holds two jugs pouring water. Here both jugs seem to provide the beginning of the Lethe, trickling downward. An old man behind her represents the other stream, which empties into the fabled Lake of Mnemosyne, Memory, in the realm of the gods (suspiciously like the lake on which Mantua is situated). On some later “Marseille” style cards, correspondingly, one jug empties onto the land amd the other into a larger body of water. In the fresco, one stream is white, for spirit, also associated with the swan, the other seems to have earth mixed in, to give the soul the necessary heaviness for return.

On the Cary Sheet, the streams from both jugs end up in one body of water. That is the postition Dante himself,  receiving both, to distance himself from his sins while identifying him more strongly with his good deeds.

The star on the Cary Sheet nymph’s shoulder probably makes her the planet Venus, since there are five small stars in all, for five planets (not counting the sun and moon). That is another allegory, of Heavenly Love, Aphrodite Uranos, regenerating the soul and shepherding its ascent, or else acting as Vulgar Love, Aphrodite Pandemos, and sending it into the world of becoming. This distinction is also Platonic, from the Symposium (180d-e), even if not from the mouth of Socrates.

If there are seven stars in the "Marseille" card, it may be that the designer thought they should represent all seven planets, or a particular constellation with seven stars (e.g. the Pleiades, said, in the King James Version's inaccurate translation of Job 38:31, to exert influences on human lives: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades...?"). The large star at the top might represent Christ, the "bright and morning star" of Rev, 22:16, whose love allows victory over fate. In Plato, it is the love of the archetypes that allows that triumph.

Plutarch describes this part of the journey, in the continuation of the previous quote from “Face of the Moon”, by saying, of those who have withstood the purges and frights of Hades (943D; I omit a part about their wailing)
Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement.
This seems to be a comparison of the soul’s state to that of initiates into the mysteries, Plato’s second type of madness (the others were divination, poetry, and love, with the Charioteer as a lover).

The Moon, in Plutarch’s myth, is where souls reside who have escaped the perils of air and fire. Here he starts by replying to those who maintain that there is a face on the moon (944B-C)
It is no such thing, but just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Heracles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, so those features are depths and hollows of the moon. The largest of them is called "Hecatê's Recess," where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; and the two long ones are called "the Gates", for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth.
The Moon was identified with Hecate, one of her three manifestations (along with Persephone in the underworld and Diana on the earth). The crayfish or crab, present in the Cary Sheet card, is the sign in the zodiac identified with the Moon; but  the crustacean's size, gives it an ominous quality that Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, also connoted. Plutarch's account of the "Gates" offers a fitting interpretation of the two towers on the card: they would be guardhouses needed to regulate the flow of soul to and from the side facing away from the earth.

Macrobius had said that the path of descent was that of Cancer; corresponding to that dictum, the zodiacal sign of Cancer dominates the lower part of the card. If so, the top half of the card, with the moon and its side away from us,  might point beyond itself to the sign of Capricorn.

Although the cosmographs had a separate sphere for each of the planets, in Plutarch the soul goes from the Moon directly to the Sun, and to no other.

In medieval Christianity the sun was a symbol for God. So on the bottoms of the early cards we see reminders of the desired deliverance from mortality: an young boy reaches for the sun (late 1400s, far left), and in the Cary Sheet, of which we see half (middle left) a young boy waves a flag of victory. The Vieville card of Paris c. 1650 is another version of that idea. As we have seen, for Plato the sun was comparably the visible manifestation of the Good, the object of the philosopher’s quest, now literally within the child's grasp. Alternatively, he could be returning to the planetary god with which he was associated before birth, as Plato described in the Phaedrus (253b), in this case Apollo. Apollo was always depicted blond and young, just as the sun was yellow and always rose with the same vigor every morning. In addition, youth corresponds to the state of the newly reborn soul; and had not Christ said "become as little children" (Matt. 28:3)?. Nudity, in turn, suggests a casting off of the things of this world.

The image on the “Marseille” Sun card curiously, has the Gemini, a zodiacal sign not associated with the Sun. Originally this type of design seems to have shown a man and a woman, as in a card found in the Sforza Castle in Milan and repeated  on the Noblet, (here as restored by Flornoy). This image is similar to that in the 1496 zodiac, which depicts a man and a woman embracing. But what could such a representation mean, Platonically?

What is especially in need of explanation is the pair's sad look, which they have even in versions with two boys. I think Plutarch’s essay provides an answer. On the other side of the Moon, he says, the spirit takes leave of the soul for a journey to the Sun, its final destination, where the “ultimate alteration” will occur (944E):
They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns.
On the Moon, there is a kind of second death. The soul remains on the Moon to be absorbed there into material for new souls. For a pair that has gone through so much together, it is a sad day, even though a necessary one for the spirit’s return home to the Sun—where it, too, will dissolve into raw material for new spirits, which will join with new souls on the Moon.

There may be something else to the sadness, in Plato rather than Plutarch. The sadness might express the parting of Platonic lovers who have gone through life together, experiencing Beauty through each other. This aspect is brought brought out best in the "Marseille" decks. The lovers dedicate themselves to God in the Pope card and to each other in the Lovers card. Then they appear in different ways throughout the sequence: the animals going up and down the Wheel, the two poles of the Hanged Man, the two heads on the ground in the Death card, the two jugs of Temperance and the Star, the two small devils of the Devil card, the two figures at the Tower, the two dogs of the Moon, and the two souls facing us in the Judgment card.

As far as the gender, in Latin "anima", meaning "soul", is feminine, while "spiritus", meaning "spirit", is masculine.  When both became depicted as male, the association is probably to Castor and Pollux, life-long companions and half-brothers, one of whom was mortal and the other immortal. When the mortal one, still a young man, died and went to Hades, the immortal one was so distraught that he gave up half of his immortality so that his brother could be with him in one place or the other.


The Judgment card was called the Angel in the early lists, because it always had a prominent angel on top blowing a trumpet. That scene, of curse, is thoroughly Judeo-Christian. From Plutarch’s perspective, however, the angel's wings, and the call to higher spheres, suggest the spirit after the it leaves the soul and journeys to the Sun, where its substance is absorbed, to be recycled to make new spirits that will join new souls on the Moon and their material body on earth

In the cosmograph, the Angel would be above the Fixed Stars, where ps.-Dionysius, in his Celestial Hierarchy, put nine levels of angels. On the other hand, since the souls on the card come out of their graves on earth, the card seems to recapitulate the entire journey of the soul after death. Or perhaps the cards between Death and Angel were a late addition, since they cover the same course as the Angel card (for more on this point, see the end of this essay).

Apart from that issue, a Platonic equivalent to the card might be the image in the Phaedrus of the virtuous soul regaining its wings for its journey heavenward after death. Plato's description in fact seems to have inspired least a couple of artworks of the period. One is a medallion in a sculpture which the sculptor (probably Donatello), placed hanging from the neck of a noble-looking youth. Art historian Francis Ames-Lewis thinks it was probably done in honor of Cosimo de' Medici's son Giovanni, who died in 1463 at age 42  ("Neoplatonism and the Visual Arts", in Marsilio Ficino, his Theology, his Philosophy, his Legacy, ed. Allen and Rees, 1981, p. 337). Here the charioteer has the wings rather than the horses. In the passages where Plato talks about the upward flight of the soul, he mentions wings but not horses (Phaedrus 249a, 249c, 256b). In this context Ames-Lewis tells us that "Ficino drew comparisons between the journey of the soul to God and the Christian concept of the Last Judgment" (p. 329). The Angel card invites such a comparison.A similar Platonic image, in an explicitly funereal context, adorns a tomb made in Florence around the same time for a Cardinal of Portugal. In each case, one horse looks downward, as though with some regret, while the other looks up.

In Ferrara, unusually, the Justice card was put between Judgment and World. In Plato's Republic, three of the four virtues related to the individual parts of the soul (temperance to the appetites, fortitude to the spirit of honor, and wisdom to the rational faculty), while the fourth, justice, related to all three parts, as that which puts each in its proper place and makes the soul a harmonious whole. While with wisdom the soul knows the good, with the virtue of justice it does the good, Plato says (443d). Thus it is the most important virtue for Guardians of the state to possess (540d-e). Such valuation is in keeping with Duke Borso d'Este's own high valuation of the virtue; Pope Pius II said after his death, "During his lifetime the people erected a statue representing him seated, administrating justice" (Commentaries of Pius II, Book II, transl. Gragg and Gabel, pp. 180-1). The placement of the Justice card a next to the Angel of Judgment also emphasizes that while man's justice may be flawed, God's is not. 

The late 1400s Milan World card, with its city in a bubble, can be interpreted as either Christianity's New Jerusalem or Plato’s ideal Republic, either of which Milan might have been flatteringly thought to approximate (the "well managed state" in the phrase of Decembrio, first translator of the Republic).

The “Sforza Castle” card (middle left) has the scene we today are more accustomed to, that of a youthful figure, probably female, in a mandorla, with the symbols of the evangelists in the corners.

In the “Tarot of Mantegna” S series, late 15th century (near left above), the same four figures in the same places (the corners, although not the same corners) represent the sphere of the "Prima Causa", i.e. God. (Inside, of course, is a cosmograph.) Since the evangelists show the way to God, the card might symbolize leaving the world of the elements for something higher, closer to the "Prima Causa", as in the four “beasts” on the flaming chariot of Ezekiel’s vision. But then who would the figure inside the chariot be?

In the "Sforza Castle" card (already shown, above middle), the figure is somewhat ambiguous between male and female, but more feminine than masculine. Vieville in c. 1650 Paris made that image more masculine, rather clearly Jesus (above. far left). Noblet (near left) made it a masculine looking female.

One suggestion has been that she represents Plato’s “World-Soul”, soul of the cosmos (see Andrea Vitali's essay here). In that case, the four evangelists would represent the four elements that make up the cosmos, and the figure in the middle its soul. Albrecht Dürer did an engraving of such a figure (for the Prognosticon of Johannes Stabius, 1502). Called “Urania”, the Greek word for “heaven”, also the name of the Muse of Astronomy, Dürer’s depiction comes close to that of Plato’s description of the World Soul, “interfused everywhere from the center to the circumference of heaven, of which she is the external envelopement" (Timaeus 36E).

On the other hand, given that the four figures in the corners still represent the Evangelists, we could imagine the figure in the middle as higher than the World Soul, on the level of archetypal Beauty. In that sense, she might be the goal of the quest, the “everlasting loveliness” of the “eternal oneness” (Symposium 211a), on the level of the Platonic archetypes, two levels higher than the World-Soul (which was one level below the Demiurge, which was one level below the archetypes, which was one level below the God beyond concepts). 

Besides Beauty, there is also archetypal Wisdom, which especially fits the Florentine card of the so-called “Charles VI” deck, as I have already suggested at the beginning of this essay. Wisdom, like the other virtues, was typically represented as a feminine figure. There is also Truth; the phrase “the naked Truth” was not unknown during the Renaissance (a good essay on this point is at http://riowang.blogspot.com/2010/09/veritas-filia-dei-2-naked-truth.html).

Although a soul left behind its earthly clothes in its ascent to Heaven (or descent to Hell), it presumably got new ones upon arrival. As such, with a few more clothes, the figure in the middle of the card could be the Christian version of Venus Urania, i.e. the ascended Virgin. Like Christ and Venus, the ascended Virgin was often portrayed in a mandorla (for examples see Andrea Vitali's online essay on the World card). Another image, closer to the "Sforza Castle" and "Marseille" cards, is in a 15th century manuscript of Heilege Dreifaltigkeit (Holy Trinity), a work sponsored by the father of the mid-15th century Marchioness of Mantua, Barbara of Brandenburg (Wikipedia on Barbara and its link to her father).

In this connection the German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (c.1207-c.1282) wrote an unusual account of the Virgin. Between the 15th and late 19th century this text was relatively unknown. But it fits, as an admirable summary of the Platonic ladder of love in the setting of medieval mystical Christianity, which even without Plato's actual text expressed its message. Mechthield imagines the Lord saying to her (translation by Ralph Manheim, from the German in “Jesus’ Round Dance and Crucifixion” by Max Pulver, in The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, ed. Joseph Campbell, pp. 175-176):
Maiden, dance as deftly before me as my elect has danced before thee.
And the Virgin replies:
I would not dance, Lord, unless thou leadest me.
Wouldst thou that I spring mightily,
Then must thou sing for me.
Thus will I leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into joy,
From joy beyond all human senses.
Then we are in the realm of the Fool again, as the God beyond number and concepts, a return to the divine source.


I will end by looking at the cards in relation to each other in the sequence, as depicting the life of the soul. The Fool, being unnumbered, is to that extent outside the series, in that way fitting the Neoplatonic conception of a God outside space and time, totally nonconceptual. The image also works to express the madness of the lover (philia) of wisdom (sophia), the force leading him upwards. And finally, since the Fool cannot take any trick, it is also the state of the soul before all experience, i.e. before birth.

Then the Magician is the one who gets things started, in the game as dealer, in the Platonic universe as Demiurge, in life as the distributor of the archetypes and physical conditions to the soul at birth. Interpreting the Magician as  the Demiurge of Plato and the Logos of the Gospel of John gives an allegorical explanation of why a sleight of hand artist, out of all the practitioners of deceptive practices in the world, would be on card 1. As children we learn by example. So the Popess represents the wisdom embodied in the piety of humble servants of the Church. As such she is also “conductor of the mysteries” throughout life, like Socrates’ Diotima, and the Wisdom of God, who, like the Logos, was "with God from the beginning". The Empress then represents the outflow of life and care from the divine source, while the Emperor is the divine lordship over that life. They also can be models for the players themselves, male and female, in the sense that they rule over their lives, to make of them what they will. The Pope is then a model of the connection to God that the soul needs, like the Platonic philosopher who rules wisely in virtue of his connection to the Good.

In this Platonic interpretation of the cards, I am proposing a different type of narrative for the cards from Death to the Sun, no longer "Names of God" but a linear progression out of this world. In a sense this progression is already implicit in the other cards, if, as I think, Petrarch's I Trionfi was a kind of loose model for their structure, triumphs in temporal sequence. Love was followed by Chastity (in the Milan tarot, the lady on the Chariot), Chastity by Death, Death by Fame (the figure with the trumpet, or perhaps the Devil with his torch), Fame by Time (the Hermit, out of sequence, or the Celestials), and Time by Eternity (the last card, whether Angel or World).  Fortune was added to the model from Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione. In the course of that journey the virtues would have been the tools of success; the Fool, Magician, Emperor, Empress, Pope and Popess seem to be travelers themselves (as illustrated in the "Dance of Death" scenes of the time) as well as material representatives of ps.-Dionysius's archetypal "Names of God".

However the Empress and Emperor, to the extent they represent the players, and sometimes even of royalty in the world, have yet to forge their connection to the divine reality. For that process there is the ladder of Love, in which Beauty shines from each of the pair, like a beacon to guide the Lovers in the Chariot of the soul. That achievement entails living in accord with virtue, as represented by the card of Justice, which in Plato is the virtue that keeps the various parts of the soul in harmony (but Temperance will do as well, if Justice is toward the end). If one triumphs in virtue, the Old Man cautions against attaching too much significance to that success; it is rather like in "On Wisdom" in Petrarch’s De Remediis, which cautions against thinking too highly of oneself. The Wheel of Fortune is the exemplar of such teaching, reminding us that worldly success, and perhaps even the attainment of what we thought was virtue and knowledge, is uncertain. Here one requires Fortitude, inner Strength, which is most severely tested in the accusations of betrayal that assail the Hanged Man. One’s commitment to virtue in such cases goes beyond one’s loyalty to individuals and institutions. In the face of Death, one must think about one’s soul, the severing of its connection with the body to travel upwards, allegorically speaking, through more tests of courage and loyalty, remembering virtue and forgetting vice, reflected now in the Star card. As in life, just when one expects victory, there are more trials, as we see on the Moon card. At the end, as the sad faces on the Sun card tell us, one comes to accept the separation of the soul's parts, and of the lovers, as well as the loss of one’s individual ego itself, spirit-death beyond concepts which is also a merger with Plato's divine One. 

There remain the Angel and the World cards. In some lists the Angel was the highest card; in others it was the World. The order makes a difference to the Platonic interpretaiton of the World card. If it is between Sun and Judgment, then the interpretation of the lady in the middle as the Platonic World Soul makes sense, because the Sun is in the cosmos and the Angel takes one to a higher reality, above the cosmos. A vision of the cosmos as a whole then is intermediary between the two. On the other hand, if the World comes after the Angel, then that World is in a different realm than our present cosmos. It is in the archetypal world, which is higher than the Cosmos. It is Plato's ideal state, and also the soul’s vision of that world, the world indicated by the city in a bubble or of the four evangelists leading, in the mandorla, to the archetype of Beauty. The Judgment is then a way into that world, the original place of the Charioteer watching Temperance and Beauty and the rest riding their pure-white horses..


Michael Dummett noticed in his books that if the virtue cards are excluded from consideration, all the various historical sequences have the same cards, although in various orders, from Magician through Pope, Love through Hanged Man, and Death through World. It is as though the deck designers, although isolated from each other and so not keeping to the same sequences exactly, somehow respected this division into three sections.

How would they have seen the three groups? Some propose a division in terms of the Platonic three parts of the soul, i.e. appetite, will, and reason. It seems to me that this division does not really work. The Pope or Emperor card (as opposed to individual popes or emperors) is not an example of appetite ruling. Plato's examples of appetite are typically merchants, farmers, and tyrants.It might, however, be a division into three stages of the soul. When the soul descends into a human body, it forgets the archetypes or Divine Names, which it already knew in heaven before birth. But it comes to recognize them as instantiated in particular examples in this world: Wisdom or Faith in the representatives of the Church and others, a benevolent King of Kings in the Emperor, and the Holy of Holies in the Pope. In the second stage the soul recognizes archetypes as ideals to be striven for in one’s own life: love, the virtues, triumphs of various sorts, even  against conventional opinion and with the certainty of the body’s death. The third stage has to do with the ascent of the soul after death, an ascent that can be emulated in imagination before death. All three Platonic parts of the soul are engaged at all the levels, but in different ways.

Another way of seeing the cards might be in terms of successive historical layers added on at different times. In the beginning there might have been only trump, the Emperor, as likely was the case in a deck of c. 1450 Spain (Ross Caldwell, "'El judgo de naipes" of Fernando de la Torre: a fifteenth century card game", online), or more than one, since a game of "VIII Emperors" is recorded in 1423 Ferrara. By the time of Filippo Visconti in Milan (who reigned until 1447), the other familiar trumps take shape. They follow Petrarch's series Love-Chastity-Death-Fame-Time-Eternity (the sections of his long poem I Trionfi), but with Time moved before Death and Boccaccio’s Fortune added, along with the seven traditional virtues, as the tools needed for the soul at various stages. And since this Visconti deck has feminine versions of all the court cards, an Empress is added as well, for 16 in both trumps and regular suits. That might be when Queens were added to the tarot suits: Queen cards in 15th century Italy are characteristic of tarot decks but much less so of regular decks.  In other decks, the courts number 14; perhaps the trumps do so as well.

Then the trumps increase in number. For evidence of a newer layer of trumps we need to pay attention not to the cards that vary from one historical sequence to another, as Dummett did, but to those that remain the same. If cards are always in the same position, that suggests a time when decks are produced by one region for export to another, when there is moer travel from one region to another, and a tendency toward standardization. The Fool is always without number. The Magician is always number one. The Pope is always at the end of the first group, "triumphing" over the Emperor. The Hanged Man always comes immediately before Death. The sequence from Devil to Sun is always in exactly the same order. These are probably cards that appeared later, by this reasoning.

By "later" I mean from roughly the time of the deck for the Sforzas, i.e. the 1450s or a little before. And by "later cards" I don't mean later everywhere, just later as part of the sequence in more than one region, when the deck was being standardized, and especially, given my subject here, later in Milan.

The earlier cards also change: the virtue Prudence becomes the Popess. She is the Pope's female equivalent, paralleling the Empress, sometimes put with him, sometimes with her. Time, which may never have been put in the Petrarchan order, might be the Old Man with an hourglass, before Death, sometimes just before and sometimes just after the Wheel. Or he might have become the three celestials, before Judgment. Instead of the theological virtues there are the three celestials (which outside of Milan may been there already, instead of the theologicals).

There still might have been much variation in the number and subjects of trumps from place to place. However on this theory the number of trumps, including the "later" ones, might always have at least equaled the number of cards in the regular suits. Lothar Teikemeir has documented several ambiguous suggestions of 14 trumps, in Ferrara from 1441 to c. 1477, at http://trionfi.com/0/f/x/.)

This account of the development of the tarot sequence in stages roughly parallels the topics of interest in Platonism in different periods. First it was the Republic, with its four virtues (expanded to seven by the Church) and its Guardians of both genders (for the Emperor and the Empress). That text, along with Petrarch's poem and the three theological virtues of the Church, provides a basis for the structure as seen in the c. 1442 deck, a model that might have been used in decks for several years before then. The Republic also shapes how the Timaeus might have been seen, as a creator of semblances (the Magician card). Then the Phaedrus and Apology, in Bruni's late 1420s translations, were of the most interest, along with ps.-Dionysius's works, newly translated c. 1436. These add important ideas (the Phaedrean Charioteer, the Old Man as Socrates). A little later there was also the Symposium (the Popess as Diotima).  And finally some would have turned to the works of Plutarch, a later Platonist (On the Apparent Face in the Orb of the Moon). I have not established any of this as true.  It is merely a reasonable hypothesis.