Friday, May 9, 2008

Death's Egalitarian Triumph

The Pompeii mosaic, 1,400 years before Tarot, asserts death's universal sovereignty, as does any memento mori. However, it was designed to emphasize a fundamental equality between the most disparate members of society. Ultimate equality was a precept of the Stoics. Arguments can be made that virtue is the summum bonum and achievable by all, that only the wise are truly free, or that slaves and nobles ultimately derive from the same stock. These all point toward egalitarian conclusions, but death is the only irrefutable example of universal equality. The emblem from Wither, two centuries after Tarot, makes the same point and just as emphatically, while Van Veen's allegorical emblem has more in common with the trump cycle itself. Countless works of art and literature, song and drama, reminded people of death, and most of them took pains to allude to the universality of it. This might take the form of an Everyman character, perhaps the three nobles of the Three Living and Three Dead, perhaps the King of Life in a morality play, or an allegorical figure named Mankind. Probably the most common figures in such representations were emperor and pope, the highest members of society. In each case the expressed or implied protagonist of the allegory was all mankind, but the variety with which this subject was depicted, or sometimes simply assumed, was extreme.

Among the most spectacular examples, and more closely related to the provenance of Tarot, are the Italian Triumph of Death works, such as the fresco at Pisa (c. 1340) and the one at Palermo (c.1450). Each of these has the ranks of mankind shown in a relatively explicit form of the three estates. Although all are subject to death, each grouping may be used to convey a different ancillary message. In the Palermo fresco the third estate is not shown as peasants, craftsmen, merchants, and the like, but as the most miserable of society's dregs. Beggars and cripples are pleading for the relief of death. The clergy and nobles, presumably less deserving of being struck down and certainly less desirous it, are shown as dead, dying, and in the direct path of the oncoming horseman.

In the Pisa Triumph of Death a number of related stories are told. These place members of the three estates in rather different relationships. A group of cripples, lepers, and the like at the center of the fresco are pleading for Death to release them from their misery, like the group in the Palermo picture. A large heap of dead bodies to the right of center includes an assortment of stations. Larger still are groups of nobles at the left and right of the picture. The hunting group at the left is being instructed by a monk, in the familiar form of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The garden party at the right is in the path of Death herself, a bat-winged Reaper descending upon them. The main representation of clergy, however, is the monks at the upper left. They are shown as being above the fracas, and the monk lecturing the nobles has descended from their isolation to perform that duty.

These secondary stories being told do not change the overriding message of Death's triumph over all. The point is not that the miserable dregs of society and the virtuous monks are invulnerable to death. Each group has a different way of relating to that inevitable eventuality. The monks are fully prepared and therefore indifferent, rather like Durer's Christian knight who rides past Death and the Devil without a passing glance. The beggars are desperate; that can only be shown while they're alive, so that is how they are portrayed. Although it is convenient and conventional to group assorted death-genre works together, to understand any one of them in detail requires taking the differences into account. In many cases the artist was conflating one or more rather conventional and generic ideas with one or more rather novel and specific ones. If, for example, one wanted to simply allude to spectacular and well-known Triumph of Death works, then a list might begin with Pisa (and the associated Anchorites and Judgment works), Palermo, the Costa triumphs of Fame and Death from Bologna, the Triumph and Dance of Death works at Clusone, and Bruegel's Triumph of Death. Each one, however, is a unique work. Even in as seemingly unified a genre as illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Death there were strikingly different traditions.

Costa's Triumphs in Bentivoglio's Chapel

Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

The ranks of mankind as illustrated in the Tarot trump cycle are sufficiently complex and peculiar that most Tarot enthusiasts cannot discern them at all. This is despite the fact that the highest two subjects are as conventional as possible, the Emperor and Pope. This is also despite the fact that the three estates are clearly depicted with two subjects from each of the categories. As with most other such representations, a secondary story was also being told, and that complexity, combined with a wealth of mistaken preconceptions, places the design beyond the grasp of Tarot's many thousands of would-be exegetes. They cannot or will not accept such obvious design features as the Pope being the highest subject of that type, or the two religious, two noble, and two lowly figures being a representation of the three estates. As an example of readily intelligible variations, society's dregs as illustrated in Tarot are not the blind, cripples, lepers, and the like, but low-life entertainers, a Fool and a Mountebank. What could be more in keeping with the nature of the work itself, a card game? The subjects still convey the highest and lowest, and thereby all, just as surely as the 1st-century mosaic or the 17th-century emblems. Tarot just does it a bit differently -- which is itself typical -- and in a manner appropriate to the cycle's use in a game.

The Estates and Ranks of Man

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Pair of Emblems

A week ago I noted that the Pompeii mosaic would have been at home in a 16th- or 17th-century book of emblems. Here are two very different images that convey the same basic message, taken from two of my favorite emblem books. The first comes from Otto van Veen’s Emblemata Horatiana, and the motto of the emblem is Mortis Certitudo.

It makes no difference whether you're wealthy,
born a descendant of ancient Inachus,
or whether you live out in the open,
a poor man and of a humble family—
[you're still] the prey of pitiless Orcus.
We're all driven to the same end, sooner or later
our ticket will come out of the upturned jar,
destined to put us in [Charon's] boat
for a never-ending exile.
(Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Ode 2.3)

Otto Vaenius, Q. Horatii Flacci Emblemata (1612)

The ranks of man are illustrated with exemplars. Death is personified and his lottery is shown in the most literal fashion possible. So too is Charon's boat, the river Styx, and the eternal rewards and punishments on the other side. The second example comes from George Withers' Collection of Emblemes. (The images were created by Crispin van Passe for a different emblem book, a couple decades earlier.)

Mors Aequat Sceptra Ligonibus. This is a much more direct parallel with the Pompeii mosaic, being symbolic rather than an allegorical scene. All the ranks of Mankind are illustrated by only two symbols, one representing the highest and the other the lowest. But the message is the same: "For when his fatal blow Death comes to strike, he makes the beggar and the king alike."

George Wither, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Blunder and Bullshit

Fools and charlatans are as natural and complementary a pair as victims and criminals. If we think of occult Tarot as a morality play, the central characters would be Blunder (the fool, symbol of Folly) and Bullshit (the con artist, symbol of Deception). Tarotists often identify the Fool as the neophyte seeker while the Magician gulling him is the initiated guide, sensible and revealing interpretations of the characters Blunder and Bullshit.

While Blunder and Bullshit do their best work as a team, they can provide some howlers on their own. Despite the fact that most would-be Tarot interpreters will die without ever seeing beyond their initial New Age preconceptions about fortune-telling, magic, mysticism, and fuzzy Jungian blather, it still seems possible that a rational reading could be accomplished in less than a lifetime. In the previous post it was asserted that, with a little background knowledge, some common sense, and a bit of Googling, one might sort out an involved iconographic scheme in a relatively few hours. That doesn't mean there isn't room for errors and omissions, and some may have been made in that very post. As examples, however, I'll draw from others. First, a list of some sources that were consulted before writing the previous post... and another look at our mosaic.

Selected Sources

Ross sent the following link to a nice quality image.

Another good quality image turned up at Wikipedia's page on skull symbolism.

Another good quality photo turned up on imageshack.

A succinct source is's entry, "Polychrome table-top mosaic from Pompeii".
"Roman, first century CE. "Death levels all" theme depicting builder's leveling tool from which is suspended a skull, butterfly, and wheel of fortune; from one side of the level hang a sceptre and royal purple robe, while from the other hang a beggar's staff and rags. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2003."

A 2006 article by Colleen Carroll turned up on In it, she provides some general background on both Roman mosaics and the iconography of our mosaic. Unfortunately, neither her descriptions nor interpretations of the mosaic are reliable.

Who was Hiram Abiff?
J.S.M. Ward
Baskerville Press, 1925.

The Cambridge Ancient History v.XI
John Anthony Crook, Elizabeth Rawson
Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World
Katherine M. D. Dunbabin
Cambridge University Press, 2000

The Lost World of Pompeii
Colin Amery, Brian Curran
World Monuments Fund, 2002.

Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity
Serafina Cuomo
Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Note that despite doing my research online, most of the sources listed are published books. This reflects the fact that even today the Web itself is, in most cases, a shabby alternative to the stacks. Google Books and's Search Inside feature are often the best resources available on the Internet.

Perceptual Filters

The two examples to be discussed are from what should be, a priori, the best and worst sources I found. Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity is a scholarly book that not only develops serious historical questions in a sober manner with detailed examination of evidence, but in addition, Chapter 3, Death and the Craftsman, deals directly with ancient Roman symbolism related to our mosaic; the concluding section of that chapter uses our mosaic as one of two key examples; and our mosaic is even used for the book's cover art! This is not just a passing mention. So we begin our bad examples with a best-case situation, where a serious researcher leaps to a conclusion, based on genuine evidence, but fails to critically consider whether or not it can be justified.

The picture on the cover of this book is another non-funerary item from Pompeii -- a small mosaic, originally used as a table top in the outdoor triclinium of a large house which was at least partly occupied by a tannery. The startling image it presents is that of a skull (possibly modeled after the skull of a monkey) hanging from a carpenter's square, in the guise of a piece of lead hanging from a plumb line. The skull rests on a butterfly which in its turn rests on a wheel; the libella is supported on one side by a draped piece of purple cloth and a crown, and on the other by a traveling cloak with a stick and satchel. The various objects have been read as symbolizing the poor on the one hand and the rich and noble on the other, who are united and leveled in death. The wheel is the wheel of fortune, and the butterfly is a common image for the soul. The association is, as one historian has said, 'easy to grasp': the carpenter's square conveyed the idea that death is the great equalizer.

Let us first point out the obvious blunder, underlined in the above quote. The skull is not suspended from the line, and cannot possibly take the place of the plumb bob, as the plummet is shown above the skull. This is a very clear and accurate depiction of the plummet, including the fact that its reach does not extend beyond the base of the tool, and even including 3-D shading. In addition, the skull is enormously out of proportion to serve this function, and would descend below the feet of the tool rendering it useless. This interpretation is a blunder in several ways, falsifying the actual image and imposing another one which makes no sense. Other preconceptions have made their way into the passage as well, such as referring to the tool as a square. The angle is about 104 degrees, which is absurdly obtuse (insert your own pun here) to be called square, especially given that the author has noted that the tool is carefully depicted in most details. This level was not intended to be a multi-purpose device, either practically or symbolically, and would not function as plumb or square.

Again, we need to remember that this is not a casual description by someone who is only passingly interested in the image. This mosaic was closely considered, and the skull is both literally and figuratively the central element of its design. Yet the notion that the skull is intended as a weight was nonsensically imposed on the the picture -- what would lead to such an arbitrary and obviously false reading? It turns out that Cuomo had another artifact in mind when interpreting the mosaic.

Note also that the Pompeii mosaic is not unique; apart from other small objects, a strikingly similar image is preserved as a bronze weight for a steelyard [scale] in the shape of a skull with a butterfly on top of it. The functioning of a steelyard requires in fact an equalizing operation between weights and wares.

This beautiful bronze skull and butterfly has obvious symbolic connections with the mosaic. The skull is, as almost always, an iconic symbol of death and the butterfly, in the Hellenistic context, certainly represented the soul. And, given the function of the item in a balance, the allegorical leveling symbolism of Death is unmistakable. It is a wonderful cognate to our mosaic, but it does not make the skull in the mosaic into a weight. This appears to be a simple case of overextending the significance of one artifact into the interpretation of another. Correcting for the mistakes in reading the mosaic takes nothing from Cuomo's overall presentation, so there is no reason to think them anything but honest mistakes.

Before we leave this bronze sculpture, however, it may explain some of the peculiarities mentioned in the previous post. The mosaic skull is horribly misshapen. It has no chin, and there appear to be bizarre bony ears on each side. Given the excellent draftsmanship of the rest of the work, this seems to suggest that skulls were not kept around as artist's models, which seems culturally plausible. However, what about the ears? In the bronze weight, we see the absent chin and also vaguely ear-like processes on either side. In this case, however, these are clearly intended as the zygomatic arches, cheekbones. So the absurdly rendered skull in our mosaic may simply be 1) a conventional chinless portrayal characteristic of the period, and 2) a grossly ignorant rendering of the cheekbones.

The most directly salient aspects of Cuomo's presentation are available online. In fact, the entire chapter is available as a PDF file. The discussion of the funerary symbolism of builders' tools is excellent, especially the combination of ax, rule, and level mentioned in the previous post.

The Usual Fuckwits

When it comes to amusing lines of pseudohistory and rank bullshit, few can compete with the fabulous Freemasons. The most appalling tripe routinely derives, directly (as in this case) or indirectly (as with much of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail mythos) from these masters of mischief. In the early 18th century, not long after the invention of Freemasonry, the fable of Hiram Abiff was invented. This was integrated into their initiation rituals as an "historical" authority. As their bullshit was piled higher and spread further, the amount of effort required of the initiate became daunting, and complex memory aids were invented. These took different forms, but are most famously known in the guise of "tracing boards". The 1925 work of pseudohistory, Who was Hiram Abiff?, includes our mosaic as a significant example supposedly documenting Masonic rituals in ancient Rome. Abiff's legend, of course, goes back much further, at least in the fantasy world of Freemasonry. But we pick up the story with our mosaic.

The Roman Collegia had an initiation rite and the discovery of an inlaid marble tablet containing certain symbols suggests that Attis was their hero. On a ground of grey-green stone is inlaid a human skull in grey, black and white.... On the stick hangs a ragged, old, brown cloak tied with a cord, and over it a leather knapsack.... To the top, just beneath the knot, is a strip of white material with a line of dots or holes along the middle, and beneath is a robe of royal purple (red) fastened to the stuff by a cord. There is little doubt that here we have the "tracing board" of the degree of Death and Resurrection worked by the Roman Collegia.... The meaning of the scrip or knapsack is obscure, but it is obviously the reverse of the strip of cloth on the staff, the meaning of which is equally uncertain. The staff is, however, clearly the staff of the conductor of the dead, and the royal robe reminds us of the robes in which they clad the figure of Adonis slain. The thorn staff also seems to refer to the Acacia tree, and we cannot forget the fact that Adonis was not only the God of Corn but also of Trees. The fact that the royal robe is attached to the staff of the Conductor of the Dead clearly indicates that the initiate was symbolically raised from an old worn out physical body to a perfect spiritual body fit for habitation by the Divine King.

Naturally there is more, but this provides us with a couple points of approach. Given that the royal purple and plain ragged robes have been correctly identified, as has the symbolic opposition between the pictorial elements on either side, the rest of the analysis should be rather simple. In connection with Hellenistic royalty, the diadem is an obvious and fully explanatory association for a white band above the purple robe. In connection with paupers in the Greco-Roman world, the symbolism of a plain staff and a leather knapsack would be equally inescapable, rather than obscure. These connections are not merely necessary and, for anyone familiar with the subject matter, obvious, but also sufficient. No further explanation is required, and certainly not any arbitrarily forced reading about things like "the staff of the Conductor of the Dead" and its supposedly clear significance. Piling such inferences on top of arbitrary speculation is, unfortunately, what most online Tarot discussions specialize in.

As is usually the case with such pseudohistorians, we have the ugly combination of ignoring the obvious and imposing the arbitrary. No explanation or justification is given for either, and alternative readings are not considered -- even implicitly -- much less are they compared against the preferred interpretations. Overinterpretation in the form of false specifics is repeatedly introduced. Most misleadingly, there is "little doubt" about the most implausible of conclusions, in this case, that 18th- and 19th-century Masonic practices were instituted nearly two thousand years earlier.

Seeing such weaknesses in both the best (most scholarly) and the worst (most typical) examples of iconography, all one can do is 1) strive for the most parsimonious and conventional readings possible, and 2) seek out and pay attention to those who would disagree with your interpretations. Of course, good advice is only applicable to those who are not intellectually or morally bankrupt, and anyone who writes a book like Who was Hiram Abiff? is almost certainly deficient in one or both of those areas.

P.S. As yet another example of blundering interpretation, the description of the mosaic quoted above views the level as being like a coat hanger, "from which is suspended" the items in the middle, while the items at each side "hang" from the libella. Like Cuomo's assertion that the skull is the level's plummet, this is wildly false both in terms of the illustration itself and in terms of making hash of its meaning. The scepter, wheel, and staff are obviously and dramatically depicted as sitting on a shelf or floor. This is most clearly indicated by the shadows which fall on the floor and which commence from the object itself, showing that the objects are in contact with the floor. If they were hanging above it there would be a gap between object and shadow. More importantly, however, the function of the level and the meaning of the arrangement are based on that fact. The level only works if it is sitting on the things being measured: both scepter and walking stick must be on a flat surface with the libella resting on top of them.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mors Omnia Aequat

Two days ago Ross Caldwell pointed out to me a magnificent mosaic from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD. This little masterpiece of Roman art would be at home in the most sophisticated collection of 16th- or 17th-century emblems. The motto would be Claudian's famous exclamation, "Death levels all!" (Omnia mors aequat, from The Rape of Prosperine, book II, line 302.) That is also a central them of the many Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works from the mid 14th century through the 17th century, including the Tarot trump cycle. Thus the allegory depicted in the mosaic, although entirely pagan, immediately reminded both of us of the Tarot trump cycle. Yesterday Ross invited me to post on the mosaic, to use it as an example illustrating some methodological points from recent discussions on a Tarot forum, but it may be better to let them rest. I will address some of the topics here, instead.

The first point demands that we begin by openly admitting what most Tarot writers conceal or deny: We are talking about a far-fetched parallel, at least a priori. It comes from 1,400 years before Tarot was invented. It was, with absolute certainty, unknown to those who created Tarot. It could not be a source or an influence on the design of Tarot. Moreover, given my insistence that Tarot is a Christian allegory, there is an obvious disconnect between it and any purely pagan allegory. Such honesty carries a price, which is why it is so rarely seen in the writings of Tarot enthusiasts. The burden is clearly on me, the writer, to explain the alleged relevance of the mosaic to Tarot. The significance in terms of Tarot cannot be simply assumed as self-evident, (even though it might be to Ross and me). To make such an explanation necessitates knowing something about both works and it requires detailed analysis of their alleged affinity. If I leave those things as an exercise for the reader, then I'm just another bullshit artist and poseur, pretending to know something and pretending to say something. That is true regardless of whether there is a genuine parallel between the two works or not.

A second point concerns critical thinking, figuring things out based on the information at hand rather than abdicating that primary task while whimpering about having imperfect knowledge. Everyone always has less than complete knowledge. Some Tarot enthusiasts consider two decades of study insufficient to form any coherent conclusions about the meaning of a complex work like the trump cycle. This sets a new and tragically low standard for the term "slow learner". I've had two days to look at this allegory and write this post. Admittedly I had the aid of Google Books and's Search Inside feature, but then so does everyone else in the online Tarot community. Of course, if I couldn't do a decent job in two days, I'd take three. However, if I couldn't make any sense of it after a period of twenty-some years, after reading the views of dozens if not hundreds of others who studied the same allegory, I might consider taking up a different hobby.

The Mosaic

This mosaic was apparently discovered in 1874, in Pompeii. It is about one foot square and contains ten major elements, arranged in three columns. Although sometimes described as a table top, which it may have been, when such symbolic mosaics are found in situ they usually occupy the center of a plain or patterned mosaic floor. The central mosaics usually range in size from one to three feet square, and those in Pompeii are usually symbolic, (rather like the images in emblem books). One example is in the House of the Labyrinth, also in Pompeii, in which the patterned floor neatly expands on the central mosaic's depiction of Theseus and the minotaur.

The present mosaic was found in a triclinium, an open dining area. While emblems of death might seem peculiar in a dining area, this was actually a traditional dinnertime reflection. A famous scene from Satyricon provides an example.

While we were reading the labels, Trimalchio clapped his hands for attention. "Just think, friends, wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it's the stuff of life. I give you, gentlemen, the genuine Opimian vintage. Yesterday I served much cheaper stuff and the guests were much more important." While we were commenting on it and savoring the luxury, a slave brought in a skeleton, cast of solid silver, and fastened in such a way that the joints could be twisted and bent in any direction. The servants threw it down on the table in front of us and pushed it into several suggestive postures by twisting its joints, while Trimalchio recited this verse of his own making:

Alas! how less than naught are we;
Fragile life's thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
Drink and make merry while you may.

The point here is simply that such macabre concerns were considered suitable mealtime subjects, as they were when Parisians ate lunch by the Church of the Innocents with the Dance of Death for their scenery. This was true for both the wealthy and for the working classes. Likewise, they tended to share the mors aequat omnia sensibility of death as the great leveler.

The composition of this mosaic includes not only well executed detail but also sufficient trompe l'oeil in the form of directional lighting/shading and 3-D rendering to make the composition appear precariously balanced and unstable. It is equally correct to say that the objects are shown as being perfectly balanced: the builder's level is perched atop a scepter on the left and a walking stick on the right.

The most striking element by far is the large white skull in the center of the composition, neatly and symmetrically framed by the other elements. The objects depicted on the left include a scepter/spear to which a diadem (the white ribbon of Hellenistic kingship) is tied and a royal-purple robe tied to the scepter with a golden cord. The objects depicted on the right include a rough-cut walking stick from which a beggar's pouch is hung and to which a ragged robe is tied with a plain cord. These attributes, insignia of the highest and lowest stations, are correspondingly arranged on either side of the skull. The scepter and the stick are exactly the same length, as is shown by the builder's level balanced on top of them. A clearer image of post-mortem equality between the most exalted and least respected members of society can hardly be imagined.

The plumb bob of the level touches the top of the skull, which sits on a butterfly and a wheel. Again, the 3-D shading of the skull and wheel, along with the shadow of the wheel, give the illusion that these objects are stacked on top of one another. This suggests a unreal degree of substantiality to the butterfly, or that the death-head is weightless, or perhaps that the death-head is depicted on the wall in the background while the other items are free-standing in front of it.

Elements of the Composition

LIBELLA -- The builder's level can have various meanings in period art. It may be a totemic item in a funerary composition, simply being a tool of the deceased's trade. However, the libella repeatedly appeared in funerary art along with an ax and a rule, which were probably symbolic. The rule measures and the ax cuts, suggesting the end of life, while the level indicates the egalitarian result. There is also the level's symbolism as virtue. A pendulum or plumb level works like a the scales of a balance, indicating level when the line is in the middle. (Libella is the diminutive of libra, and the verb form libro could mean to level or to weigh. Words like deliberate and equilibrium reflect this family of meanings.) Aristotle's conception of virtue, of course, was likewise a mean between extremes, and the opposite of unbalanced. Regardless of what Freemasons might think, being "on the level" is as natural a metaphor being "even-handed" or "well-balanced".

SKULL -- The skull in this mosaic is the only element not reflecting good draftsmanship. The skull has the large brain case of a human, and the sutures, although they are badly positioned, indicate that the artist was somewhat familiar with skulls. However, the maxillary prognathism and absent chin are simian in appearance, and the bony ear is bizarre. I have read no explanation for this, and have none to offer. However, the significance of the skull as an icon of death is sufficiently clear in any rendering.

BUTTERFLY -- The butterfly was a symbol of the soul, and appeared in various works of art and literature. Famously, Psyche was turned into a butterfly and shown with butterfly wings. As such, the butterfly could be a metaphor for a Neoplatonic post-mortem ascent through the spheres.

WHEEL -- The wheel might suggest Fortuna, who was given this attribute during the period when the mosaic was made. However, it might also be a symbol of journey, metaphor for life. The six spokes suggest an elaboration of this, the six Ages of Man. Any of these would convey the same general idea, man's lot in life.

The SCEPTER is a symbol of royalty and the associated power and authority. Ancient Roman leaders were also warriors, and were sometimes depicted with a SPEAR either in addition to or in place of a scepter. The DIADEM (white ribbon) was the Hellenistic symbol of kingship, a status so high that even power-mad caesars took care to reject it. The PURPLE ROBE tied with a GOLDEN CORD -- another symbol of power, wealth, and privilege.

The vagrant's STAFF is the opposite of a scepter. The PERA, (Cynica pera or Cynic sack) was a leather bag (purse, pouch, wallet, knapsack, etc.) and along with the walking stick was a long-standing symbol of a rural figure or an urban beggar's poverty. These items were adopted by the Cynics and other ironic sages, the obnoxious "wise fools" like Diogenes. The RAGGED ROBE tied with a PLAIN CORD is the opposite of the purple and golden insignia on the left.

The Parallel with Tarot

The lowest trumps of the Tarot cycle include representatives of both the highest and lowest social status. The Emperor and Pope are the highest figures in medieval Christian society, while the Fool and Mountebank are among the dregs. In both works the notion of merism, that form of synedoche wherein the highest and lowest encompass and thereby represent the entirety, is clearly at work. In both works, the subject of the allegory is all Mankind.

The allegory proper, that which happens to Man, is equally encompassing. The wheel, as an allegory of either the ups and downs of Fortune or of the Ages of Man, spans the entirety of Everyman's life. This is spelled out in more detail in the trump cycle, where successes (Love and the Chariot) are followed by reversals (Time and Fortune) and downfall (Betrayal and Death). However, the abbreviated version in the mosaic is still culminated by the dominant feature of the work, the allegory of Death. If the libella is taken as an allusion to virtue in life, then this would be an added parallel with the trump cycle; but it is more likely just a meta comment about the leveling effect of Death, and the moral of the allegory.

The butterfly can be taken as the post-mortem soul. Released from its mundane, sub-lunar imprisonment as a caterpillar, it can fly free. This suggestion of a triumph over Death is in keeping with the highest-ranking cards of the trump cycle and their eschatological content. Again, it is an abbreviated version, and obviously a purely pagan one; but it completes the tripartite parallel between the mosaic and the trump cycle.

Whether one accepts the reading of either work, or the alleged parallel between them, at least interpretations are provided and the parallels are spelled out. One can accept this analysis, reject it, or perhaps correct it and build something better. But there is something there, something beyond a weak analogy nebulously insinuated. The Tarotists' claim that endless years of mindless rummaging, feeling and fondling a thousand different possibilities, are a necessary prerequisite to any critical thinking about the trump cycle, is suspect at best. Whether a disingenuous ruse to shield bankrupt pet theories or an implicit admission of gross and incurable ignorance, it is something to be ashamed of.

December 28, 2013 postscript:

This childish interpretation was found on the Internet, without any authorship information. It seems to be worth including here, as a characteristic example of the most typical sort of bullshit one finds in Tarot books and online discussions.