THE TAROT OF MARSEILLES AND MEDIEVAL ART

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Looking at the images of the Trumps in the Tarot of Marseilles allows us to suspect that many of its symbols are well rooted in Medieval Art. Furthermore, this initial suspicion can be confirmed if we look carefully to the art production of this time or read into the words of its writers.

Medieval Art was mainly a Christian Art, which was symbolic in its very foundations. The use of this kind of symbols in the XVth Century, when the Visconti Tarot was created, is not out of place at all, since the conception of the world in the early stages of the Renaissance was build on the dictates of the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And they were a legacy from Medieval times.

During this period, art was a tool for instruction and worship. And as such, it followed some well defined set of rules. Émile Mâle synthetized the foundation of these rules in three general principles (1913:1-22):

The art of the Middle Ages is first and foremost a sacred writing of which every artist must learn the characters.

Émile Mâle himself can explain much better this principle: 
He must know that representations of God the Father, God the Son, the angels and the apostles should have the feet bare, while there would be real impropriety in representing the Virgin and the saints with bare feet… There are also accepted signs for objects of the visible world which the artist must learn. Lines which are concentric and sinuous represent the sky, those which are horizontal and undulating represent water… Thus we have a veritable hieroglyphic in which art and writing blend, showing the same spirit of order and abstraction that there is in heraldic art with its alphabet, rules and symbolism (1913:2).
The second characteristic of medieval iconography is obedience to the rules of a kind of sacred mathematics.

Once again, let see what Émile Mâle has to say on this point:
Position, grouping, symmetry and number are of extraordinary importance… In early times certain passages in the Bible led to the belief that the right hand was the place of honor… The medieval theologians in their turn laid great stress on the dignity of the right hand place, and the artists did not fail to conform to so well established a doctrine…Again, the higher place was considered more honorable than the lower, and from this some curious composition resulted. Of these the most striking is that of the figure of Christ in Majesty supported by the four beasts of the Apocalypse. The four beasts, symbols of the evangelists as we shall show later, were place according to the excellence of their natures… (1913: 5-7).
The third characteristic of medieval art lies in this, that it is a symbolic code.

On this last principle, Émile Mâle wrote:
A detail of apparent insignificance may hide symbolic meaning… In the art of the Middle Ages, as we see, everything depicted is informed by a quickening spirit… Such a conception of art implies a profoundly idealistic view of the scheme of the universe, and the conviction that both history and nature must be regarded as vast symbols… From what has been said it is evident that medieval art was before all things a symbolic art, in which form is used merely as the vehicle of spiritual meaning (1913:15-22).
Of course, we can find interesting hints into the symbols of the Tarot of Marseilles in the quotations extracted from Émile Mâle’s book.

For example, we can learn about meaning of lines and positions of the figure in the cards and also about the connotation that having bare feet did have in the Middle Ages. Moreover, we can conclude that Le Monde is a derivation of that image of the Second Coming of Christ in Majesty to exert his Last Judgement. But going further, by studying medieval symbolism we can discover as well that the hand coming out from a cloud was a representation of God the Father, the highest Christian divinity, meaning his intervention in human affairs. Is his hand the one coming out from a cloud in the Ace of Sword or in the Ace of Wand?

Medieval Art is a key to understanding the Tarot of Marseilles. Of course, it is not the only way to decipher its meanings, but it is at least a very fundamental and inescapable one. The reading of Émile Mâle's book would be of profit to any student of Tarot, because it introduces the reader into the world of Medieval symbols and explains how they were treated by artists and writers during this time. Moreover, books like this show that Tarot is far less mysterious than many have pretended and help to better understand the origin of its symbols and images.


Bibliography

Mâle, Émile
Religious Art in France: XIII Century. (London & New York: Dent & Dutton). 1913.

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