by Robert Mealing
A Very Brief Bit of Tarot History
The historical search for the birth and development of Tarot cards is for many a fascinating preoccupation. Even though here at the dawn of the 21st Century we have learned a lot about the development of Tarot cards, there are still many mysteries to be solved. Housed in the Cary Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is a rare find… an uncut sheet of Tarot cards, probably produced in Milan, dating as far back as possibly the year 1500. This sheet has come to be known as the “Cary Sheet”.
Thanks to the work of scholars like Stuart Kaplan, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, most historians agree that Tarot cards were invented sometime in the mid to late 1400’s, relatively shortly after regular playing cards were introduced to Europe in the 14th Century. It is suggested that Tarot cards were produced as a game to amuse members of the Visconti, d’Este and other royal houses of Northern Italy. The oldest Tarot cards in existence, from the hand-painted Visconti and d’Este Tarot decks, date from this period.
We also know that within another century, wood-block printed, hand-stenciled cards were being mass produced in Italy and France. For the past several centuries, the most famous style of these printed cards has come to be known as the “Tarot of Marseilles” pattern, named after one of the largest areas of card manufacturing – Marseilles, in southern France. The most familiar antique decks of the “Marseilles” (or similar style), include the Jean Dodal (Lyon, 1701-1715), Jean Noblet (Paris, circa 1650), and Nicolas Conver (Marseilles, 1760). When compared to their Italian cousins, these decks share much of the same imagery, yet they developed a standard iconography all their own. A standard that has stood the test of time for hundreds of years.
The Tarot of Marseilles
Where did the TdM (Tarot de Marseilles) iconography come from? The images on the Cary Sheet are so intriguing because they bare many similarities to the famous 17th Century Tarot of Marseilles pattern. Some have even called the Cary Sheet the “Missing Link”, representing the evolutionary stage between the 15th Century Italian decks to the 17th Century French decks; but it is possible that the sheet could represent a French pattern migrating into Italy.
On the sheet are the full images of 6 cards, and fragments of 12 other cards. While the images are untitled and unnumbered, like the early Italian decks, the six complete cards are fairly easy to recognize as The Popess, The Emperor, The Empress, The Moon, The Star, and The Magician. The partial cards include Wheel of Fortune, Chariot, Lovers, Strength, The Sun, The Tower, The Devil, Temperance, and possibly The Hanged Man, Justice, The Pope, The Fool, Seven and Eight of Batons.
View the Cary Sheet Online
The Library at Yale University has kindly placed a high resolution scan of the Cary Sheet online.
When first viewing the Cary Sheet, some of the cards are immediately apparent as being likely related to the TdM style. The Moon in particular has almost all of the standard imagery expected in a TdM pattern. The crawfish is prominently displayed rising out of the water. There are two towers on either side of the card. The face of the moon shines above a crescent. Some have mentioned that the dogs/wolves found in the TdM pattern are present as well, but I can not discern them.
The Star is also strikingly similar to the traditional TdM pattern. The kneeling nude figure pours water from two jugs while a large star shines brightly above her. A notable difference when compared to the TdM pattern is the number of stars surrounding the largest star. In traditional TdM iconography, there are seven stars, but on the Cary Sheet, there are only five… four clearly visible in the sky, and an additional one on the figure’s right shoulder.
Unfortunately, we can see only half of The Sun card. At first glance, it seems that it might have the twins traditionally found in the TdM pattern, but on closer inspection it appears that there might insted be only one figure pictured, holding a banner. Andy Pollett has recreated a possible sample of what the complete image might have looked like on his excellent website here.
The Emperor and Empress
The Emperor and The Empress are portrayed in the traditional seated positions, although The Empress is unusually shown in profile. Both hold the shield with the empirical eagle, and a scepter with orb.
The Cary Sheet depiction of The Popess is quite interesting. The book she usually holds on her lap has instead been placed on a stand. An altar-boy or monk kneels beside her. Both the stand and the second figure do not appear in the TdM style.
The Wheel of Fortune
The Wheel of Fortune, while only a fragment, is very revealing. Like the 15th Century Visconti-Sforza deck, it seems to have four figures circling the wheel; but the figure of Fortune has been removed, and the turncrank for the wheel is now visible. Also of note is that the figures are human rather than animal. It’s possible that (also like the Visconti deck) the figures are portrayed as humans, but have some animal-like appendages such as tails or ears. The Jacques Vieville Tarot (dated 1643-1664), while not really a TdM, is worth mentioning here as two changes have occured… there are now three figures on the wheel, and one of the figures has turned completely into an animal. By the time of the 1760 Nicolas Conver deck, the remaining two humans now also have animal shapes, but have retained human facial features.
The Magician on the Cary Sheet wears a very plain cap, which is extremely unusal. Even in the Visconti Tarots he dons an extravagant hat. He is seen seated behind his table, perhaps performing a trick. He holds a cup in his right hand, and probably his wand in his left. His table is cluttered with the tools of his trade.
What does it mean?
In conclusion, the Cary Sheet is one of the oldest links to the origin of the Tarot. Some of the iconography looks remarkably similar to what we would call the Tarot of Marseilles style, yet there are features that resonate with the style of the Visconti, d’Este, and other early Italian decks. It also has attributes that are uniquely its own.
When placing it in history, it fits neatly between the assumed dating of the Italian decks and the Tarot of Marseilles decks. It was probably produced in Milan, which during that period of time fell under both Italian and French rule.
It would be wonderful to someday find other sheets from the same deck. What does The Hanged Man look like? Would it reveal what is dangling from his shoulders? The Chariot looks like it is a platfom, much like the Visconti decks, is it a woman or a man riding triumphantly? The fragment of the lovers seems to show two figures, not three, and we’re not even sure if there is a cupid floating above them.
But even without these answers, perhaps one mystery has been at least partially answered… how did the French and Italians influence each other during the development of the tarot? Is the Cary Sheet the bridge by which the Tarot traveled between countries during its infancy?