by Jean-Michel David – fourhares.com
In 1947, Gérard Van Rijnberk published in Lyon (France) his now relatively little known yet often referenced and influential Le Tarot: Histoire; Iconographie; Esotérisme. Of course, he claims not so much originality for the bulk that he presents, but rather the careful inclusion of the research and insights that had been significantly mounting by that time, and to which the numerous small details that have since emerged have provided us with such wealth as to make his own book appear like a giant within the stack. More recent works have included, of course, the various works that have usually included Sir Michael Dummett as well as his similarly respected (co-)authors.
A wonderful example of recent discoveries – or perhaps better described as re-discoveries – is included in the current (i.e., April-June 2016; Vol 44, No 4) issue of The Playing Card (the Journal of the International Playing-Card Society [IPCS]). For those amongst us far more interested in tarot than in other card sets, and, similarly, more interested in what tarot presents other than its card-playing aspect, all too numerous articles are, though interesting, a little like reading about the variety of violets and their growth for someone deeply taken by the symbolic value, variety, and uses of roses. Still, this specific issue has Emilia Maggio’s ‘New Insights into the So-called Alessandro Sforza Deck’, that presents the two recently discovered cards and compares these to the existing extent deck, with some important commentary on dates and the ‘Charles VI’ (incorrectly named) deck.
For these occasional papers alone, the IPCS is well worth supporting with membership (and of course, that would not be the sole worthwhile reason).
I’ll return to Van Rijnberk’s book in a short while. Let’s first, however, have a brief look at some aspects brought to our attention by Emilia Maggio’s paper. Firstly, the two cards in question depict the Empress and the Two Batons. Two cards amongst those previously missing from the Sforza deck recently discovered at the Abatellis Palace (Palazzo). What is fascinating includes that which is both obvious and yet iconographically invisible if we are not awake to it: the Empress is clearly reflective of Mary Queen of Heaven. Of course, however, the depicted figure is not meant to represent Mary, but rather and importantly be an earthly reflection, in the depiction of the woman imaged (whomever of the courtly family it may actually be) mirroring those characteristics expected of the position and role.
The two cards do more than this: as mentioned by Emilia, the sandwiched paper forming the cardboard is (as was usual) recycled, bearing dates of 1427 and 1428, clearly indicating and further confirming that this, amongst the earliest known tarot-like cards, can date no earlier.
There are a number of ways in which the earliest order has been determined, not least of which includes the numbering of some early decks as well as the Boiardo poem. Irrespective of these (though taking such into consideration), there will inevitably be variation from locality to locality (and even, I would suggest, group of users or players, or even the same people over time). This is evident in what emerges later as some of the main sequences, even if the order stabilises with what we have come to know as the Marseille order (amongst the most prevalent and common). Still, even there, we can see that much later users (such as is depicted in numerous 20th century decks) sees justification in inverting card order.
The ‘original’ order, if ever there was such, is, I would suggest, based on very simple yet absurdly complexified considerations: the earthly ranks precede muses and allegories that precede sciences, virtues and cosmic elements that precede eschatological and transcendent considerations. In effect, this is similar to what (especially) the Mantegna and Minchiate decks and the like, though in clearer ways, do.
We should nonetheless be careful to consider that with each iteration of decks, insights (or indeed oversights!) can and have lead to alterations in understanding what is intended to be depicted and hence becomes re-drawn to depict the misunderstood precursor. This was likely the case with what became polo sticks in the Mamluk decks (its own precursor likely having nothing to do with polo sticks) and hence as batons or clubs. Similarly, we have seen a significant loss of understanding of the depiction of the Tower (Maison Dieu) from a late medieval representation of a scene from the flight to Egypt to re-‘understanding’ the card as the tower of Babel (virtually inverting its meaning!).
Then, of course, there is the inevitable impact on the ordering from conscious (or intentional) considerations. I personally consider that the stabilising of the order as per the Marseille (fixing the ‘groups’ of cards mentioned above into unique order) was due to what Mark Filipas has called an ‘alphabetic masquerade’.
A problem that can arise is when someone, who sees aspects of the cards somehow reflecting a particular view, assumes that the whole sequence must therefore and somehow be a corruption of their preference. We have seen this throughout tarot’s history, beginning with de Gebelin’s Egyptian views for tarot, to more contemporary similar notions for a variety of various claims. I should not here be read as not valuing the individual insight that each of those proponents have in relation to both the ways in which the imagery can be seen nor, indeed, the new insights that can be unveiled of the spiritual or philosophical world views they see reflected; rather, and more simply, that the vibrancy of the cards will inevitably defy a fixed verbal construct.
One of the aspects that I highly value of Rijnberk’s book is that which is precisely suggested by its subtitle: history, iconography, esotericism. I would suggest that to strive to enter the last of these without deeply allowing an unveiling of the second, itself grounded in an increasing appreciation and understanding of the first, would be a little like striving to enter the sacred (or ‘secret’) meaning of a Kabbalistic treatise without due consideration to, and grounding in, its literal and allegorical dimensions.