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Its in the Cards-

Updated: Mar 6

     Reflections on the Tarot- and the expressions of card playing in art - Brian Keeler

Above- a painting by the author of card players- inspired by versions of Caravaggio, De la Tour and Valentin de Boulougne. This work titled "Ace of Hearts." 

As an intro to this essay I've had an interest in cards and card playing, not in actual playing of card games so much, but mostly in art and mostly from the Renaissance or Baroque period or working with the Taro deckt. For example, paintings by Caravaggio and Georges De la Tour come to mind as prime examples. But this essay takes cards from the Renaissance Tarot deck as the subject. 

I have not looked at a deck of Tarot cards in many years- but now I am recalling a relationship from decades ago. My girlfirend at the time would read cards and this was my introduction.  And a teacher at art school, The York Academy of Arts, told me years later that he was considering illustrating his own set.  This project appealed to me.  And there are some contemporary versions of the deck, done with photo manipulated means that are very evocative.  They seem to have layer upon layer of colors not unlike a palimpsest.  

Recently in a philosophical study group that I attend via zoom, but in person back in the day, the course took a new direction.  The leader asked us to begin to engage with a Tarot card and explore how it could inform our lives or perhaps fall flat and have no significance.

I found the suggestion intriguing as it offered a way to be more involved as some of the content of the group has at times seemed rather irrelevant and arcane hair splitting.  Still, the  group's level of appreciation and understanding of a wide variety of philosophical schools always kept me interested.  The anecdotes during the classes about Paul Brunton, the author and philosopher were also appreciated, as I have been reading several of his books and compilations- the Notebooks of Paul Brunton. 

After reflecting on the suggestions and stipulations for this new direction- we could not passively sit back and listen but were required to offer and share our own impressions. I got to it.  We happened to have a "Renaissance" version of a Tarot deck here.  And, as it turns out, Linda had purchased this deck in Florence several years ago.  She was attracted to the illustrations and the costumes portrayed.

At first, I selected a card after going through the deck and looking for one that I connected with.  This image had figures extracting themselves up from the earth and was reminiscent of one section of the famous fresco cycle by Signorelli in the Cathedral in Orvieto, in Umbria.   Then I realized that the card needed to be selected at random, and we needed to trust the chance encounter with the imagery.   There is a certain amount of stress, apprehension and concern as one wonders about drawing out a foreboding card, say, like the hangman or the devil.  Speaking of the hangman, another student had that card in a previous meeting.  And the imagery is surprisingly playful and nonchalant for a man is shown inverted and hanging upside down with a rope on one foot.  So the interpretation is not necessarily as dour or ominous as we might fear. In another session a participant drew the card of death, and of course this too seems frightening or ominous.  But as we realize, after some reflection, that death too can be viewed as a positive event- just another transition.

Above- the Tarot card of the Emperor-

The Renaissance deck, I accepted and felt comfortable with- and I did not go searching for various other Tarot versions.  I have been a student of  the Renaissance and the art of Florence and Italy for many years.  In fact, European art and history from the medieval times onward has been of interest.  Having traveled and painted in Italy and Europe for decades, this has underscored the choice of this deck.

So, my card is the Emperor. I have a version with the figures shown in profile, but there is another version that portrays the Emperor and attendants from straight on.

Unlike others in the class, I can't say that the card informed my life on a day to day level.   Still, I did find myself reflecting on the relevance to presidential elections and world politics- leaders from other countries.

In the image- ( the king sitting resolute) as if addressing his court, the grey bearded and long-haired king or Emperor is holding a crystal ball in his left hand, which is resting on his lap. In his other hand he holds a scepter.   His garments appear to be lavish and his long ankle-length garment is purple- the traditional color or royalty since ancient times. Oddly, he appears to be in stocking feet.

Two pages  or court attendendants are next to him with arms crossed and with hands in prayer or supplication.  Their poses, apparently in a kneeling position, is worth noting, for the anomaly in drawing.   They are in fact hovering in a rather impossible pose with only their toes supporting their weight.   I have a theory about these two youths.  The practice in Renaissance bodegas, or painters' workshops was to have a stock of drawings which could be used as reference.  At times when needed they could use these for a variety of projects.  There are some famous examples of poses being repeated in various works.  The same pose could just be reversed in the same painting.  There is a famous fresco in the Tuscan town of Monterchi by Piero della Francesca, the Madonna Del Parto, where he used this method for two of the flanking figures.  Perugino also did this.

We will also notice that the plinth or platform of the throne is drawn with an incorrect linear perspective. This lets me play art connoisseur and place this illustration to the early 1400's of about 1430.  It is similar to Fra Angelico whose modeling, color and compositions are remarkable but the perspective has not yet incorporated the lessons of Brunelleschi. 

But back to the card. I am regarding the Tarot like short epigrams or similar to the concise adages of the Sabian Symbols.  The Sabian symbols are a compliation of short adages that poetically describe each of the 360 degrees Zodiac. They imbue the mere numbers with meaning appropriate to the degree of the zodiac.  As I am probably optimistic and a glass half-full kind of person, I choose to look on this particular card hopefully.  The King's vision, clairvoyance and prophecy offer a structure for his kingdom.  The crystal ball is of interest as it connotes prescience.  The king has the gift or profecy and a divine mandate.  And it recalls a story that Tim recounts of using a crystal ball- meditating with it and gazing into it for hours to learn something about his mother.  He then says that a simple phone call would have saved him a lot of time.  And as mentioned in Tim's essay of two weeks ago, there was a caveat about not having the suppositions or preconceptions about the recipients of a crystal reading influence the prophecy. In other words a true reading being the goal, rather just telling the subjects what they want to hear.

The two pages, or young men are depicted much smaller than the Emperor.  This I think is also a convention of early Renaissance and Byzantine paintings- especially of Madonnas or Crucifixes. We may think of famous versions by Giotto, Cimabue and  Buona Segna that greet the visitors in the first room of the Uffizi in Florence.  The system is called hierarchic representation and the size of the figures depends on rank or relative importance.  Therefore the Madonna, or this case, the emperor is the larger.The gold leaf on the card is also a practice of the early Renaissance and later given up in favor of artists showing their chops by actually depicting the gleam of gold rather than resorting to gold leaf.


How does this card relate to or inform me?  Hmm.  Well there is a certain parallel to our class. We are studying higher truths and in this new departure, attempting to get in touch with the subtle realm. The subtle realm, I interpret as the nuanced level of our lives.  Looking for the patterns and the interconnections that give relevance and meaning.   But the emperor as an authority figure is intriguing, as the bumper sticker says; question authority.  

Above- A pastel from 1992 by the author- titled "Auspicium." 

I wonder about despots and authoritarian dictators that are prevalent and the rise around the world or of right wing extremism.   I suppose the card could have an inverse interpretation, which is the abuse of power and trust.

Like other forms of revelation or aides to introspection, the Tarot is part of various other methods that many of us have had a long interest in.  The study is, rather for growth and wisdom rather than manipulation.   The pose of the pages, with hands over their hearts, in supplication or prayer is relevant too. I have been reading in a volume of Paul Brunton's Notebooks, a chapter on prayer.  He has adage after adage of insightful suggestions about prayer. One that I recall is that Brunton cautions that prayer is to be elevated out of a wish list or pleading for material benefit. He also cautions about it becoming the ego talking to the ego about the ego. In other words, our conception of prayer needs to mature.  And I recall a song by the Doors, where Jim Morrison says- a man in seminary school put forth the proposition that we can petition the lord with prayer. Then a loud voice blares, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer."

I also think about astrology and ancient Roman practices like haurspicapy and auspices of oracles.  There is a place on the Capitoline Hill overlooking the Roman Forum where such oracles were delivered.  I've painted and sketch at this spot on several occasions. And another related practice or place called auspicium- finding the will of the Gods through observing bird flights. I  did a painting of this theme years ago. 

It will be interesting to see how the card continues to inform- and hopefully to see how my understanding will evolve and expand.  The sharings of other students in the class have been interesting as we unpack the iconography of individual cards.

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