To recapitulate: The Tarot trump cycle is a moral allegory(1). If there is a coherent meaning to the sequence, a design which somehow makes sense of the sequence, then the ranking of trump cards in the game is also a hierarchy of allegorical figures as an artistic composition. If the figures constitute a unified work of art, then the hierarchy is the composition of that work. (Yes, this is uber-geeky stuff.)
This sort of design has some notable forerunners. Prodicus’s Hercules at the Crossroads is the precursor of all moral allegories, but it’s a one-act play. Prudentius’ Psychomachia has virtues defeating vices, battle after battle.(2). Boethius’ uses personifications to tell his story, but it is hardly the same sort of allegorical series. Shortly before the invention of Tarot there was the German Art of Dying Well, which had a much more clearly defined series of psychological battles spelled out. An earlier narrative of allegorical triumphs, Boccaccio’s Amorosa Visione, was better placed in time and country to be influential when Tarot was invented, but the preeminent example was Petrarch’s Triumphs.
As pointed out by Gertrude Moakley, (and applauded by Erwin Panofsky and Michael Dummett), Petrarch’s Trionfi is the primary influence on the design of Tarot, as well as the dominant social context for Tarot’s reception and popularity. They share the same name, and they share the genre of moral allegory with personified figures. They share the same general theme, a contemptu mundi in which worldly concerns are triumphed over by the expected Christian afterlife. They share the same central conceit, a concatenated hierarchy of allegorical triumphs. (This is quite different from the sequence of battles in Psychomachia, Ars Moriendi, or a hypothetical series of virtues and vices.) They share much of the same subject matter in their central personifications, and they share a closely related sequence, although there are difference enough that they are clearly not the same design. The provenance of the two is perfectly aligned for Petrarch to have influenced the design of Tarot. They shared in the popularity of a general Renaissance triumphalism in the later 15th and 16th centuries.
In her book, Moakley makes a case for Tarot being a Carnivalesque parody of Petrarch’s Triumphs, thereby explaining both the similarities and differences. Almost a half century after its publication in 1966, her book remains the only plausible and detailed interpretation of Tarot ever published. This illustrates the remarkable failure of the pop-culture Tarot community to advance their own field of supposed expertise. Thousands of Tarot books (and thousands of Web pages) have been published in the interim, many of them purporting to deal with the historical meaning of Tarot, and the result is virtually nothing of value. One of the reasons why so little progress has been made since Moakley, and since Michael Dummett in 1980, is that their insights have been largely ignored. Taking a different approach, we can proceed step by step beginning with Moakley’s identification of Tarot as a moral allegory, akin to Petrarch’s Trionfi. The second writer on Tarot iconography to acknowledge is Dummett.
Michael Dummett and Tarot Iconography
His most crucial insight, almost universally ignored by would-be Tarot exegetes, is that the trump cycle consists of three different types of subject matter. He originally based this on a comparison of the various orderings of the trumps. These were created in Italy, during the initial spread of the game. Each locale wanted its own version of Tarot, and created their own civic-pride variant ordering.
When we look closely at the various orders, we find that there was far from being total chaos. A first impression is of a good deal of regularity which, however, is hard to specify. Now the cards which wander most unrestrainedly within the sequence, from one ordering to another, are the three Virtues. If we remove these three cards, and consider the sequence formed by the remaining eighteen trump cards, it becomes very easy to state those features of their arrangement which remain constant in all the orderings. Ignoring the Virtues, we can say that the sequence of the remaining trumps falls into three distinct segments, an initial one, a middle one, and a final one, all variation occurring only within these different segments.
Dummett went beyond that and identified the different subject matter included in each group. This essential insight was published in 1980, but most Tarot enthusiasts have yet to grasp it or its significance for understanding Tarot. This post, like the previous one, is about the lowest-ranking group of trumps. Partly as an excuse to post some additional pictures, partly to emphasize that uniqueness is typical.
Everyman and Mankind
The lowest subjects in the hierarchy represent Mankind, beginning with the lowly Fool and culminating with the Emperor and Pope. As illustrated dozens of times in the previous post, this is a commonplace subject. Two of the trump figures are religious; two are nobles; and two are riff-raff. This much is obvious at first glance, although even today – a half-century after Moakley and three decades since Dummett(3) – few Tarot writers understand what these cards represent(4). The meaning is not too subtle, complex, nor obscure and, although it is a unique design, there is nothing unusual about that uniqueness.
Mankind was an extremely common subject in religious art(5), and variation was the norm. Representations ranged from a single Everyman figure to a Ranks of Man motif including dozens of assorted stations and professions, from Rex Vivis (in the morality play, Pride of Life) to the junk-picker used by Bruegel to characterize Elck, or the fools used by Brandt to characterize Mankind. Although there was nothing like a canonical form, the most common identifying characteristic of the many representations was the presence of emperor and pope, the highest-ranking figures of temporal and religious arms of Mankind, along with some lesser ranks. In the context of this vast and diverse body of cognates, the design of the Tarot trumps seems rather unexceptional, despite being unique.
According to medieval Christianity, God created the hierarchy of Man to serve his own purposes, and the story of Mankind is the story of the Fall and Salvation. In the picture below, the spiritual and temporal powers are shown explicitly associated with the economy of salvation: an emperor receives Eve’s gift of death, while a pope receives Mary’s gift of life. These orders of Mankind were not just job titles, but essentially different types of human beings, God-given identities as particular classes.
Mankind fucks up in the Garden
Receives second chance from the Virgin
God grants Death
power over Mankind
Aristocracy, the underlying idea of classes of men, goes back to ancient writers, notably including Plato (famously, the men of Gold, Silver, and Bronze) and Aristotle. An interesting example of these ideas being both updated and slanted for a particular audience is presented by Michael Camille in his excellent Master of Death.
While the popular iconography of this period, such as the Dance of the Dead, plays on the sweeping equality of death’s inevitability for all estates from king to beggar, the clear social demarcation between the various orders of society in this period meant that death as a historical force was different for each. Remiet had made a scheme of the different types of men in the world, when illustrating Nicole Oresme’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics for Louis d’Orléans in 1396, which expands the traditional three orders of society, those who plough, fight, and pray, into six separate types of gens deemed necessary for civil society. In Remiet’s version, however, the two groups that come first are literally twice the size of the other four and separated from them at the bottom of the previous page, whereas all six compartments had been equal in earlier versions of the scheme made for Charles V. These two taller and pre-eminent social groups are the soldiers (gens darmes) and the men of government (gens de conseils). It was among these groups that the patron of this copy, Louis d’Orléans, as a seasoned knight and as an advisor to his brother, probably counted himself. On the next page are four smaller compartments where Remiet pictures the four other groups: priests (gent sacerdotal), peasants (cultiveurs de terre), craftsmen (gens de mestier), and merchants (marchands).
(Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Michael Camille, 1996.)
Soldiers and Councillors
Priests, Peasants, Craftsmen, and Merchants
From our point of view here, it is interesting to note that no king nor pope appears in these panels. This is a striking Ranks of Man design, yet the highest-ranking figures are omitted. It is also worth noting that, as is common, the design is unique and women are ignored.
The Three Estates
Perhaps the most pervasive analysis of social organization in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was the division into three orders. The trifunctional schema, those who pray (oratores), those who fight (bellatores), and those who work (laborares), is closely associated with French philologist Georges Dumézil. It appeared early and its influence continues to this day, with the expressions "third estate" (commoners, hoi polloi, lower classes, etc.) and "fourth estate" (an adversarial Press) being particularly common. However, it lost much of its significance during the 19th century, made rather obsolete by the diminishing power of both Church and State in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Evident in England as early as the ninth century, the trifunctional model triumphed in the eleventh century with the formula, “oratores, bellatores, laboratores” (those who pray, those who fight, those who work): priests, warriors, and peasants. It endured down to the time of the French Revolution with its three estates.
(The Medieval Imagination, Jacques Le Goff, 1985.)
Although a ternary division of mankind had been common from late antiquity, it took various forms over the centuries, serving different purposes. This is discussed at length in Duby’s The Three Orders, but the key points relevant here are that there were social divisions made and there were different schema used. Regarding the most common form of the Three Estates, “Haymo, a monk at Saint-Germain of Auxerre in the first half of the ninth century... was the first person, so far as we know, to have inscribed side by side on a piece of parchment the three nouns that express social trifunctionality: sacerdotes, milites, agricolae.” It was commonly a hierarchical schema.
While each of the functions was indispensable to the other two, this did not mean that all were equally noble: on this point the bishops were utterly convinced. They also severed whatever connections may have existed between the trifunctional figure and the royal person. In this they were aided by Dionysius. They did not look upon the three functions as upholding the throne or as reflecting the king’s virtues and obligations in the social body. For them, trifunctionality reproduced the heavenly order on earth. Consequently, contrary to what some have maintained, they did in fact regard the triad of functions as including all human conditions, with each of the categories ranged behind a leader, a head, as was appropriate for any “order”, one or another of the three figures of perfection – the good priest, the good soldier, and the good peasant....
(The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Georges Duby, 1978.)
Again, the most common form is Pope, Emperor, and Peasant with flail, but extreme variations are also common. One of the most famous examples of the Three Estates view of Mankind comes from the 12th-century Chronicon ex chronicis, by John of Worcester.
The chronicle of John of Worcester, dated between 1130 and 1140, relates the three dreams of Henry I, where the king saw the prelates, knights, and peasants of the kingdom remonstrating bitterly with him about high taxes, and each social order is described in an emblematic way, the peasants with their agricultural implements, the knights in mail-armour, wearing iron caps, and carrying weapons of various kinds, and finally the prelates with their pastoral staff. The paintings illustrating the chronicle in the manuscript of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, faithfully reproduce the written account of the dreams.
(Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, 2002.)
Over four centuries later, the Three Estates remained a conventional moral theme, like the divine right of kings, promoting the aristocratic ethic, "know your place, peons". Sometimes the idea was elaborated.
The Working Class
The Ruling Class
As an ideological tool, the Three Estates was sometimes useful in terms of fighting specific egalitarian heresies(6). More generally, it justified the aristocratic order of nobles over peasants and villagers, and the power and privileges of clerics as well.
The value specific to the populace, to which was attributed a saving grace on a par with valor [of the knights] and purity [of the priests], was the pain of the flesh, the suffering due to labor. Dolar—labor. Just as the function of the pure was to pray for their fellows, and that of the valiant to risk their lives in defense of all, so the function of those whose value consisted in their weariness was to win the bread of other men in the sweat of their brow. This toil they offered in exchange for the salvation of their souls and the security of their bodies. Justifying themselves, but in the same stroke justifying the seigniorial mode of production as well.
(The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Georges Duby, 1978.)
Sometimes the idea was as simplified as in the 13th-century illuminated initial and 15th-century marginalia below. In the latter, one corpse holds a papal tiara, one holds a kingly crown, and the third has only a flower to use as a hat.
Monk, Knight, Peasant
Job on Dungheap
Church and State
Not as celebrated but perhaps as common as the Three Estates analysis of social organization was a dualistic grouping into Church and State, the religious and temporal branches of Mankind. The two arms of Leviathan from the title-page of Hobbes famous book show the corporate State, what Hobbes termed the “body politic” (“De Corpore Politico”), literally headed by the monarch, wielding both temporal and religious power. This is analogous to one traditional meaning of “the Church”, the corporation of the faithful.
This too is, of course, a God-given scheme.
Any typology of Mankind must, of course, exist within the larger framework of the Christian view of the cosmos. Perhaps the greatest, and most well-known image of this Chain of Being comes from Rhetorica Christiana, which also includes a tree of Temporal Hierarchy and another of Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.
Great Chain of Being
Again, it is immediately apparent that different groupings were used, as well as different figures to represent each group. Most commonly this would reflect the religious versus secular dichotomy or the Three Estates, and sometimes the religious and secular groupings of Christendom would be contrasted with those outside the fold: non-believers, heretics, Muslims, Jews, or more generally speaking, the damned. Those were common ways of depicting Mankind, and most of them included either an emperor and pope or similar figures, such as king and bishop. (Does repetition help?)
Among the themes depicted in the Gallery: Ranks of Mankind post were adoration of sacred subjects, subjection to Folly and Fortune, subjection to Death, protection by the Virgin, Christ, or both, and subjection to the Last Judgment. The emperor and pope, usually with subordinates, turned up most commonly in connection with memento mori and the Triumph of Death, including the Danse Macabre, and resurrection to Judgment. These were the things with which Mankind was concerned – especially Death.
Non Nove Sed Nove
One more time: A fundamental fact about the examples above, and the seven dozen examples in the previous post, is that uniqueness is not unusual. Each artist sought to represent a similar, closely related concept: either all of Mankind or all of Christendom in most cases. This corporate protagonist is the Everyman of some allegorical composition. Some motifs (like the papal tiara and imperial crown) are quite common, although none are universal. This novelty within convention is typical of works of art and literature. Artists are creative, but no work is wholly novel. Most works include novel elements or creative handling of some elements: non nova sed nove.
This is the nature of Tarot, both in general terms and in terms of each individual deck design.
In general terms, the Tarot trump cycle teaches a very derivative moral lesson, using conventional themes, subjects, and individual motifs. The lowest trumps represent Mankind. The middle trumps show the rise and fall of Fortune’s Wheel, met with the three Moral Virtues. The highest trumps tell of the biblical End Times, including the overthrow of the Devil, the signa coeli of Luke 21:25, and Last Resurrection and New World. However, it expresses this story with in novel fashion. This is one level of non nova sed nove in Tarot.
During the first century of Tarot in Italy, each locale wanted their own version of Tarot. The primary trump subjects, like the Sun, were conflated with different secondary subjects, like a woman spinning, children playing, or Diogenes in his barrel. The order of the cards within each of the three sections was revised a bit, suggesting a somewhat different allegorical narrative. This is another level of non nova sed nove in Tarot.
A second noteworthy observation is that the most common moral allegory which used Everyman or Mankind was some variation on mors omnia aequat. There are few things that can be honestly said about all people, but death is the one true universal. Death is also central to the theology of Christianity. The Fall of Man instituted death, allegorically giving King Death sovereignty over Man. The death of Jesus was the redemptive act of his life. Everything else was incidental. And the culmination of all time is the Last Resurrection from death, after which we are judged. The Gothic Macabre sensibilities of Christians was not an aberration but a recognition of their theological core. Vera philosophia est meditatio mortis.
These are important points in terms of understanding the Tarot trump cycle. The design of the lowest trumps, as a group, is unique but that does not indicate that it is a secret heretical code or alchemical woo-woo or, worse yet, a meaningless hodge-podge of subjects. Like so many other works of art and literature, Tarot is non nova, sed nove rather than a mindless copy of some other work. The fact that so many moral allegories with a ranks-of-man motif center around Death personified is also revealing. The middle trumps in Tarot end with Death and the highest trumps end with the Last Resurrection and New World -- triumphing over Death. This design is, in general terms, consistent with the most common family of images illustrated in the Gallery: Ranks of Man post. Tarot is unique, but also fairly typical.
✎ 1. My approach to the meaning of Tarot was recently shrugged off in a snarky, Twitter-length dismissal: “Congratulations Mr Hurst. You've discovered Art History. Welcome.” In his mind, that was adequate rebuttal of anything (everything?) I've written, and there is a sense in which his contempt may seem justified. Since 2000, I have been trying to bring basic art-historical attitudes and methods to the question of Tarot iconography. If sensible, objective methods of research and analysis were practiced by the writers of Tarot books and online Tarot enthusiasts, then my sermons about it for over a decade would indeed be silly – preaching to the choir. As an example, I take the Wheel of Fortune in Tarot to represent the Wheel of Fortune, and to do so in much the same way as in countless other works of art and literature. (Cf. Panofsky, Renaissance Art, & Tarot, June 8, 2002.) This seems trivial, a childlike reading when compared to the slippery, convoluted, and far-fetched interpretations of the cultists. However, this approach is neither trivial nor common, and there is another sense in which my critic’s posturing exemplifies much that is wrong in online Tarot-history fora. The insinuation is that an art-historical approach is nothing new, nothing important, nothing different than what everyone else is doing. That insinuation is a lie. So I’ll continue presenting this approach to Tarot iconography, including the sine qua non observation that the trump cycle is a moral allegory rather than an occult manifesto, political propaganda, rites of initiation to a secret society, etc.
✎ 2. George Leake discussed Psychomachia, the Ages of Man, Romance of the Rose, and by extension the whole family of medieval allegory in his 1999 essay, Tarot Origins: Sorting Out History and Myth. It doesn't seem to be online except where I posted it to THF, and at the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine:
Tarot Origins: Sorting Out History and Myth.
✎ 3. Moakley and Dummett are name-checked here because they explained much about the allegorical design of the trump cycle. Moakley correctly identified the genre as a moral allegory, suggesting parallels with Petrarch’s Trionfi. Dummett had a fairly clear understanding that the lowest trumps are a Ranks of Man motif, pointing out both the division between the three sections and the nature of the subject matter in each section. They laid the foundations of an art-historical understanding.
✎ 4. The confused attempts at explaining the Popess which are being recycled at THF demonstrate that, as of 2013, most Tarot enthusiasts do not yet understand anything about the meaning of the trumps as a cyclic work of art. They cannot grasp the fundamental idea that adjacent cards form a coherent group, a meaningful context which is crucial to understanding the more perplexing cards within that group. The art-historical approach remains so foreign to them as to be unintelligible.
✎ 5. The term “religious art” is used to include works usually termed profane, such as a Dance of Death fresco on a church wall. While not Biblical, nor about the life of Christ or the saints, the didactic point of such moral allegories was essentially homiletic.
✎ 6. A key example of such egalitarian heresy given by Duby is the millennial spiritual movement in northern France: Orléans 1022, Arras 1024, Champagne. Cf. pp. 130ff.