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Tarotpedia

The Boiardo 15th c Poem
Tarot history in brief

quotations from various people

Functions of Readings
What is Tarot?


Anonymous

Med. on XVIIII

Emily E. Auger

Tarot and Other Meditation Decks

L. Atkinson

Orphalese Software review

S. Arwen

Memory & Instinct

Kathy Berkowitz

Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 1)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 2)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 3)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 4)

Nina L. Braden

Tarot in Literature

David Brice

Birth of Tarot

Colin Browne

Square & Compasses Tarot

Lee A. Bursten

Journeys in Tarot Creation
Vachetta review

E.C.

Review: The Lo Scarabeo Story

Ross G. Caldwell

Tarot History

Bonnie Cehovet

Tarology - Poetics of Tarot
Review: Secret of Tarot
The Mystereum Tarot

N. Chishty-Mujahid

Concerning Ghisi’s Laberinto

Craig Conley

A House of Tarot Cards

A.B. Crowther

Rachel Pollack interview

Jean-Michel David

On Paneurythmy and Tarot
Tarot's expression of the numinous
Yarker, Tarot & Arcane Schools
Waite-Smith Sun card
The Fool as Wandering Jew
Tarot as Christian Art
Education through Tarot
Tarot: the vatical & the sacral
Fortuna, Ass & Monkey
Steiner and Tarot
1701 Dodal restored!
Enc. Tarot vol I-IV: review
Christ, World & Sin
Caveat Emptor:
       Visual Tarot

Tarot & AlefBeit
Review: Jean Payen Tarot
Tarot and Freemasonry
I-Ching and Pip Cards
Whither directing your course?
Tarot & the Tree of Life
Ovid, Egypt and Tarot
When the Devil isn't the Devil
Four elements and the suits
Court Cards & MBTI
Certification & Codes
Jean Dodal Marseille
Conference FAQs
Golden Dawn
Kabalah & Tarot
Golden Tarot review
Annual spread
Iraqi Museum
Two Brief TdM reviews
Meditations on the Tarot

Enrique Enriquez

The Joy of Wordplay
J-C. Flornoy interview
Embodied Tarot
Indirect Suggestions
Whispering to the Eye

Mark Filipas

History of Egyptian Decks
Lexicon Theory

Jean-Claude Flornoy

in memorium
from Oral Tradition

Roxanne Flornoy

Children and Tarot
from Oral Tradition

Mary Greer

Killing the Thoth Deck
On the Tarot of the Four Worlds
Egypt, Tarot and Mystery School Initiations

William Haigwood

The Sixties: Counterculture Tarot

Alissa Hall

Parlour Tricks

Kris Hadar

The Tarot

Claas Hoffmann

Crowley-Harris 'Thoth' deck

Michael J. Hurst

Tarot Symbolism review

K. Frank Jensen

Century with the Waite-Smith

Shane Kendal

A Poetry of Tarot

Ken J. Killeen

The Metaphysical Bible

Barbara Klaser

Language of Tarot

E. Koretaka

Cardinal Virtues

Dovid Krafchow

Kabbalistic Tarot

Lisa Larson

Perceptions of Spirituality

Suzan E. Lemont

Therapeutic Tarot Work

Eric K. Lerner

Diloggun and Tarot

N. Levine

Tarot of Prague review

C. Liknaitzky

Journey in Ceramics

Joep van Loon

Tarot Wheel

Karen Mahony

Prague

S.J. Mangan

Fool, Alef & Orion

Robert Mealing

Petrarch’s Triumphs
Jean Noblet Tarot
Hunting the "true" Marseille Tarot
Cary Sheet

Fern Mercier

Playing the Fool

C. de Mellet

Inquiries into Tarot

Sophie Nusslé

Fantastic Menagerie

Robert V. O'Neill

Tarot Symbolism
Tower Iconology

Michael Owen

Xultun Tarot

Dan Pelletier

Magic Manga Tarot
the Blank Spot

Robert M. Place

The Fool's Journey

Debra Rosenthal

Looking at the Jacques Vieville

Mjr Tom Schick

Tarot Lovers Calendar

Inna Semetsky

Counseling Reading for Spouses
Learning the language of images
Re-Symbolization of Self
Tarot (dis)contents

Diana Sobolewska

'Bateleur's tale'

Russell Sturgess

Jesus's New Testament

N. Swift

Sufism & Tarot

Arthur E. Waite

Symbols of Tarot

The Tarot Wheel

a tripartite view on the internal structure of the Visconti Sforza Tarot

By Joep van Loon

Filippo Maria Visconti

Filippo Maria Visconti


Bianca Maria Visconti

Bianca Maria Visconti


Francesco Sforza

Francesco Sforza


Gian Galeazzo Sforza

Gian Galeazzo Sforza

As all human made concepts, Tarot has not been created immediately in its final form. In the beginning of its existence, in 15th century Northern Italy, there were a lot of different stages before the Tarot crystallized in the form we know it today, with 4 suits containing 10 numeral and 4 court cards and completed by 21 numbered trumps and 1 unnumbered picture card, the Fool. The four suits were derived from early Arabic card games, the trumps were an invention during the Renaissance period in Italy. No references are given in this article, most of the information given here can be verified on the excellent website trionfi.com, some other information comes from Andy’s Pages (a_pollett.tripod.com).

The first card game with separate trumps was probably ordered in the early 15th century by Filippo Maria Visconti who became Duke of Milan in 1412 at the age of 20 years. The painter was Michelino da Besozzo. The images of the trumps were based on the classical Roman mythology with 12 Gods and 4 Heroes or Half gods. We don’t know the number of cards of each suit, we only know that the highest suit card was the King and that the four suits, containing 10 numerals each, were distinguished by eagles, phoenixes, doves and turtle-doves. None of the Michelino cards have resisted to time, the information comes to us through the writings of Martiano da Tortona, the scribe of Visconti, who died in 1426.

The probably oldest Tarot game that survived time (partially) is the game actually known as the Cary Yale Visconti or also as the Visconti di Mordrone. It was probably created by Bonefacio Bembo in 1441 at the occasion of the wedding at the age of 16 years of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of Filippo Maria. She married with Francesco Sforza, who was at that time 40 years old. The suit signs were Cups, Swords, Coins and Arrows. Every suit had 16 cards, 10 numeral cards and 6 court cards. Probably there were, like in the Besozzo game, 16 trumps, of which 11 have survived. At least four trumps had a symbolism different from later Tarot games, Faith, Hope, Charity and Fame.

From the second oldest surviving Tarot game, called the Brere Brambilla Visconti, only 2 trumps survive, the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, too little to conclude anything about its structure. It had the same suit signs as the Visconti di Mordrone, but with only 14 cards in each suit.

The third game painted by Bonefacio Bembo, known to us as the Visconti Sforza, was ordered in 1450 by Francesco Sforza, probably at the occasion that he became the Duke of Milan, 3 years after Filippo Maria Visconti died without leaving a son as legitimate heir. The suits signs were now Cups, Swords, Coins and Sceptres. There were 14 cards in each suit and probably only 14 trumps, who have all survived.

It was only in the last quarter of the 15th century that another painter, maybe Antonio Cicognara, completed the Visconti Sforza game with another 8 Trionfi, of which only 6 have resisted to time. At that time the Duke of Milan was Gian Galeazzo Sforza, grandson of Francesco, who became Duke of Milan in 1476 at the age of only 7 years.

During its development, there were a lot of influences on the imagery of the Tarot. We mentioned already the classical influences with the Besozzo trumps showing images based on Roman mythology. Another influence was the 14th century writer Petrarca who wrote a poem called ‘I Trionfi’, In this poem he describes a procession of 6 chariots, in which the driver of each chariot is triumphed by the driver of the next one (Love → Chastity → Death → Fame → Time → Eternity). It is this poem, ‘I Trionfi’, that gave its name and its internal structure to the trumps, with each trionfi triumphing over all lower trumps and triumphed by all higher trumps. Next, as in most Renaissance Art, a very important influence on the Tarot imagery was the Bible. Its tripartite view of the nature of man, distinguishing body, soul and spirit, might have been of influence on the structure of the Tarot. Also the writings of Plato influenced the structure of Tarot. In book 4 of his work ‘The Republic’ he describes the nature of Justice in human beings. Long before the Bible, he had a tripartite view of the human soul. He divides the soul in three levels, an appetitive, a spirited and a rational one. The appetitive soul deals with sex, hunger, pleasure or in general with physical satisfaction and must be controlled by practising the virtue Temperance. In the human body it corresponds with your belly or your genitals. The spirited soul deals with self preservation, anger, honour and victory and must be controlled by using the virtue Courage. Its correspondence in the human body is your heart. The rational soul deals with truth and wisdom. Its corresponding virtue is Prudence and in the human body it is symbolized by your head and mind. Only someone who has these three virtues united can practise the virtue Justice. Prudence and Justice are often combined in one, because someone who practises the virtue Prudence is able to practise the virtue Justice.

The structure of the Visconti Sforza in 1450

As stated before, the trumps section in the original Visconti Sforza consisted of 13 Trionfi plus the Fool. The final version of this Tarot game consists of three distinct levels, a first level describing the structure of society, a second level describing the journey of the human Soul through life and a last level, describing the ascension of the human Soul to Paradise, after its separation with the human body. This third level is completely missing in the early Visconti Sforza. It is highly unlikely that all the cards of one distinctive level were lost after a couple of years and that they have been replaced. It is much more probably that the creation of the last level took place in a later development stage of the Tarot. So my theory is that these cards are the original cards and not some sort of replacement. In fact, the third level is not missing in the original Visconti Sforza, it is represented by one single pair of cards depicting Justice.

So the Visconti Sforza in 1450 had only 14 Trionfi that described the organisation of human society and the development of the human soul through life. Both levels consisted of 3 pairs of 2 closely related cards. A seventh pair described the nature of Justice, the world’s justice associated to the human society and God’s justice associated to the human soul. The order in which I will describe the cards is governed by this division in pairs and supported by the images themselves.

Level 1 : Human Society

The society level in the Visconti Sforza is divided in three sub levels. The first one shows us some ordinary people. The second one represents the authorities and the third level portraits our moral leaders.

Pair 1 : Ordinary People

Visconti tarot Fool and Bateleur

Village Fool & Street Performer

The first pair in the Society level is formed by two cards depicting ordinary people. On the lowest card, we see a man in ragged cloths. He has an empty mind, represented by the seven feathers in his hair. Behind him some mountains, representing obstacles in our live. Green mountains represent obstacles in the real world and blue mountains obstacles in our mind. The big wooden club on his shoulder represents his force, but it is a force without intelligence. The man is clearly a Village Fool, and his mind is closer to heaven than to Earth. The Village Fool has such a low level that this card was not even able to triumph over the suit cards.

The second card shows a Street Performer. His red coat and shoes symbolises his activity. In front of him there is a table with several useful objects to trick the public. The two dices remember us that life is not written in advance, chance has a role to play. The Street Performer is seated on a cubic box symbolising that he’s a stable person. In his left hand a tiny wand, reminding in this context a magical wand. The Journey into the Tarot begins here, there are no obstacles in sight, the future is open, as indicated by the dices, everything is possible. The Street Performer is the first and lowest Trump, but it has a high value. It represents Birth and Creation.

Este tarot Fool and Bateleur

Village Fool & Street Performer

To illustrate the close link between these two cards we make a small side step to the town of Ferrara, ruled by the Este family. Like the Visconti and the Sforza families, the Este family admired card games. They even bought in 1437 a card printing press. The famous Dick sheet, dated tot the end of the 15th century, might have been printed on this press. According the account books of the Este family, Jacopo da Soncino, also called il Sagramoro, got on the first of January 1441 some money for producing 14 figures for Bianca Visconti, 14 figures that might well have been the 14 trumps of a card game. The first mention of the name Trionfi for the trumps appears one year later in the same account book. One of the oldest card game for the Este family that survived partially time is the Tarot of Ercole 1 d’Este. It was made probably in 1473 at the occasion of the marriage between the Duke of Ferrare with Leonora d’Aragon, princess of Naples. The heraldic symbols of both families figure on some of the court cards. The Village Fool and the Street Performer on this game are particularly interesting. Both cards are showing a scene in the same environment, probably a village party. On the Village Fool’s card we see some small children with absolutely no respect at all for this foolish man who appears almost naked. The children tear his few cloths further down letting appear his genitals, a detail that has been blackened out in later times. The two children appearing at the right on the Village Fool’s card are also shown on the Street Performer’s card. But on this card there is a big difference, they have a lot of respect for the clever man who captures fully their attention. The same children appearing on both cards emphasize the strong link between these two cards, it is clearly a closely related pair of cards. The children on this pair of cards symbolize our childhood and the beginning of our live cycle.

Pair 2 : The Authorities

Visconti tarot Fool and Bateleur

The Empress and the Emperor

The second pair in the society level represents the authorities of the world, the highest card representing the Emperor and the lowest card his wife, the Empress. They are clothed in blue and gold symbolizing, when used in this combination during the Renaissance, royal persons. Their cloths are richly ornamented with symbols related to the Sforza family. The Empress carries several symbols relating to power like the sceptre in her right hand, the imperial eagle on the shield that she is carrying in her left hand, the crown on her head and her royal posture on the throne. The Emperor also has a sceptre in his right hand. In his left hand a globe surmounted by a cross (the globe represents the Empire over which the Emperor is ruling and the cross the Christian religion of its habitants). He is wearing the imperial eagle on his head. The Emperor is much older than the Empress maybe referring to the situation of Francesco Sforza who surpasses his wife Bianca Maria Visconti with 25 years. The Emperor does not have the same royal posture as his wife, in fact, the relation of Francesco Sforza as Duke of Milan to the Holy Roman Emperor is not at all as close as in the time of Filippo Maria Visconti. Francesco Sforza kept the Emperor’s symbol in the cards, but in changing his posture and presenting the Emperor as an old man, he emphasizes the diminishing power of the Emperor in advantage of his own power.

In the same way as you could compare the first level with your childhood, you can compare the second level with the productive part of your life. The Emperor and the Empress represent symbolically not only the authorities of a country, but also the authorities in a family in the person of a father and a mother.

Pair 3 : Moral Leaders

The highest level in society is formed by our moral leaders, servants of God devoted to Religion. Even the highest ruler is subordinate to God, so the moral leaders trump over the authorities. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, it was still a habit that the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was crowned by the Pope in Rome. On the Visconti di Mordrone, this level is symbolized by moral values, the lowest card representing the virtue Faith and the highest card the virtue Hope. Faith and Hope are the lowest Theological Virtues, that will disappear in Paradise once the human Soul has been reunited with God.

The Female Pope and the Pope

The Female Pope and the Pope

Francesco Sforza disagreed with Filippo Visconti in the way how to symbolize Religion in the Trionfi game. He decided to use symbols that were much closer to our society in depicting a female Pope and the Pope himself. On the female’s Pope card we see a woman in the simple clothes of a nun. Here face radiates peace and the closed book in her left hand was used in the Renaissance to symbolise Faith in God. This woman beliefs profoundly in God and she has an absolute Faith in Him. This card is a clear symbol for Faith in God. In this way it is also a symbol for the Roman Catholic Religion. The triple Tiara symbolises the divine trinity and provides a close link to the second card in this pair that portraits the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope.

The Pope is the leader of the Church, so the Pope card symbolizes the Institute of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Roman Catholic Religion. The Pope is successor of Peter, first disciple of Jesus and first Pope of Rome. So the Pope is in fact the successor of Jesus. Jesus, who gave by his Death and his Resurrection, hope into Eternal Life back to humanity. Finally Faith and Hope are present in a disguised way The message is the same as on the Visconti di Mordrone, but it is given to us in a much more subtle and still easily recognisable way. Continuing the comparison of the society cards with the stages in a human life, this third pair represents the mature part of your life. One has retired from work and people profit from your wisdom. In the same way we compared the first pair with our childhood and the second pair with the productive part of our life, the Pope and the Female Pope represents our grand-father and your grand-mother.

Level 2 : The Soul’s Journey though human life

I skip for the moment the Justice card, who had his place here in the first Visconti Sforza deck but belongs to a different level, to go directly to the second level, representing the Journey of the Soul through human life. In this level we have 3 pairs representing the appetitive Soul, the spirited Soul and the rational Soul. The appetitive Soul is represented by mastering yourself. The spirited Soul is represented by the passage of time, and the rational Soul is represented by the transition of the Soul to after-life.

Pair 4 : Mastering yourself

Marriage and Victory

Marriage and Victory

The first level of the Soul according Plato is the Soul of appetite, that has to be purified in practising the virtue Temperance. This level concerns physical satisfaction like sex, thirst, hunger and in a wider sense also the lust of power. More positively, it concerns also the appetite of a child to learn. So the journey of the human Soul is starting here in childhood.

When becoming an adult, you need to master your physical needs. On the Visconti Sforza this level is symbolized by two cards expressing this need to master yourself. On the card at the left, we see two people giving a promise of marriage to each other. For the Italian Nobility, marriage was an affair of State and had nothing to do with love. So the promise of marriage between two noble people symbolizes the victory over our sexual desire. Cupid, who is holding his arrows in his hand instead of shooting down, is just a powerless spectator. The eyes of Cupid are banded to symbolise that Love is blind, but I this case Love can do nothing, the pact between the man and the woman is stronger than love.

On the second card we see the same woman, this time portrayed as the Empress. She is seated on a Victory Chariot that is led by two winged white horses, symbolising the persons mind that is ready to overcome all eventualities of life. It is a positive card indicating that this person will use her power in the benefit of her people instead of for her own benefit. So the victory described by this card is the victory over your lust to power.

Pair 5 : The struggle against time

The Wheel of Fortune and Time

The Wheel of Fortune and Time

The second level of the Soul is the Soul of Will, and according Plato you have to practise Fortitude to master this level. This second part of the journey of the Soul through human life describes the working phase of a human life, the part of life when we have responsibility over our family and over our work. So this pair deals with the hardship of life and the mental force you need to pass through this period. In the Visconti Sforza this period is symbolized by the struggle against time. No one can win from Time, you need a lot of force and courage to withstand to the effects of Time.

In the first card we see Lady Fortune. Lady Fortune has her eyes banded to indicate that good luck and bad luck act in the same way for the rich as for the poor. On the top of the wheel a boy in royal blue and gold who is saying ‘I reign’. He has the ears of a donkey to indicate his ignorance, he’s stupid enough to think that he will reign forever. On the left side a boy that climbs and shouts ‘I will reign’. And at the right a boy with the tail of a donkey who says ‘I have reigned’. Below the wheel an old man who says ‘I don’t reign’, he never had the good luck. The Wheel is representing the time that is turning, on everything comes an end and the old man carrying the Wheel of Time is carrying in a symbolic way the burden of time.

The same old man is portrayed in the next card. He holds an hour-glass in his hand, symbol of Time itself. This old man is father Time himself. Time is acting on everybody and is stronger than the strongest army.

Pair 6 : The transition to after-life

The Hanged Man and Death

The Hanged Man and Death

The highest level of the Soul is Reason, a level that has to be purified by the Virtue Prudence. In the Tarot this is symbolised by the journey of the Soul passing through the final phase of human life. The Soul is becoming wise by now and is waiting the next step, the transition to After Life.

On the first card we see a hanged man. His legs are crossed, remembering the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The hanged man symbolizes that your life has been irreversibly reversed. You have retired from work and something bad happens. Maybe you got a bad accident, maybe your wife died, maybe you got a heart attack or another very serious illness, in any case, your life will never be the same and you have to prepare for the inevitable, the transition to your After Life. Note that the mountains in the background reappear to reinforce these difficulties and that there is one blue mountain symbolizing the difficulties in your mind that you have at this moment to accept this new situation. The hanged man has a very serene expression. He knows that death is close and he accepts the inevitable.

The last card of this level is Death, symbolizing this transition to After Life. Death is standing passively. He has a bow and arrow in his hand, but he isn’t chasing. He is waiting for you, he knows you will come, your time has gone out. That this period will not be easy to accept is symbolised by the blue mountains in the background. Maybe you are not afraid for Death, but everybody has some fear for the process of dying that is extremely difficult to accept.

Level 3

Pair 7 : Justice

Justice and The Last Judgement

Justice and The Last Judgement

In the original Visconti Sforza, the third level is formed by one single pair of cards describing the nature of Justice. Justice, that is according Plato the highest virtue, here combining all other virtues in one single card.

On the first card we see the Virtue Justice with her usual attributes. In her right hand she has a balance to show that justice is impartial. The balance has to measure between good and bad. In her left hand she has a sword that symbolises that justice has to decide. Even with insufficient data, Justice will decide between good and bad. Behind the Virtue Justice we see a knight who is carrying out the decisions of the worlds Justice. In the 1450 Visconti Sforza Tarot, this card has to be placed before the first pair of the second level, just behind the Pope.

On the second card we see two angels resurrecting the Dead from their grave. The resurrected people are naked, the human soul has nothing that it can hide in front of the last judgement. Behind the Angels we see God, represented as an old man with a sword in his hand. He will decide on every Soul, and be aware, his justice is just, God does not need a balance to decide, he has all the knowledge necessary to decide if a Soul is ready to go to Heaven.

The structure of the Visconti Sforza in the last quarter of the 15th century

Even with such a logical and coherent structure, the Italian Nobility wasn’t very satisfied yet. The tripartite view on human nature was there, but it wasn’t optimal. The two groups of six cards in this structure could be compared with the first two levels of human nature, body and soul, but the last pair failed to take into account the third level. There was a need for a supplementary more spiritual level. So a new level of seven cards was designed and every level incorporated now its corresponding Virtue. This new level described the journey of the Soul after Death, from the horror of Hell unto the peace of Paradise in Heaven.

The first card games that were showing the new cards were probably the Tarot game of Ercole 1 d’Este and the Charles VI game. Both decks are dated between 1470 and 1480.

Pair 7 : The lower cardinal virtues

At some time, the Sforza family asked another painter, probably Antonio Cicognare, to complete the Visconti Sforza Tarot. Several dates have been mentioned between 1470 and 1484. The most probable date seems to be near 1484 when the ruling Duke of Milano, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, grandson of Francesco was at the age of fifteen. The two Virtues Temperance and Fortitude were added and replaced the Justice virtues as moral values guiding the first two levels. In the Visconti Sforza, these two Virtues were portrayed in a blue upper cloth with reddish shirt and shoes. The dark mountains behind both virtues remind us the difficulty for human beings to really master these moral values. Temperance replaced Justice on top of the first level depicting Society and representing the appetitive part of the Soul. Fortitude replaced the Final Judgement on top of the second level representing the journey of the Soul through human life. Then Justice was shifted on top of the newly created last level describing the journey of the Soul between Death and Resurrection and the Final Judgement was placed on top of the three cardinal virtues

Temperance and Fortitude

Temperance and Fortitude

Temperance is portrayed in almost the same way as we see her in today’s Tarot, as a woman with long blond hair, diluting one liquid with another to temperate the force of the second one. Traditionally it is interpreted as wine being diluted by water to annihilate the effects of alcohol.

David slaying a lion

David slaying a lion

Fortitude is portrayed as a man slaying an animal resembling a Lion. This scene is quite unusual, normally the virtues are portrayed as women. On the Visconti di Mordrone we see a woman opening the mouth of a lion, an image that will survive unto our time. The image on the Visconti Sforza has been related to both the story of Samson and and the Lion of Timna (Judges 15:5-6) and to the story of Hercules and the Nemean lion, the first of his twelve labours. The weak point in these comparisons is that in these stories both Hercules and Samson killed the lion with their bare hands. Personally I prefer to compare the scene on the Visconti Sforza Tarot to the story of David slaying a lion (Samuel 17:34-37). This story is traditionally illustrated in exactly the same way as we see on the Fortitude card, illustrated here by a silver plate dating from the 7th century Constantinople and conserved in the Metropolitan Museum. The story of the young boy killing a lion to save a lamb is much more in agreement with the significance of the Fortitude card who indicates that ordinary people needs a lot of courage to withstand the hardship and life in our battle against time.

Level 3 : The journey of the Soul in After-Life

The new third level of the Tarot, called the level of Light, describes in three pairs of two closely related cards the ascension of the Soul from the depth of Hell to Paradise in Heaven.

Pair 8 : Battle against Evil

The Devil and God's Anger

The Devil and God's Anger

The first level in the level of Light, consists of two very negative cards, portraying on the first card the Devil and on the second a burning building, called the Tower, Fire or Lightning and sometimes even the Devil’s House. These two cards did not survive in one single collection of cards from the Italian nobility, only the second card survived in the Charles VI Tarot. So as an exception I cannot show the Visconti Sforza cards for the simple reason that they did not survive. Did they ever exist? I believe so, they are present in all the uncut sheets of the end of the 15th century. We show here an example that is preserved in the Rothschild collection in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Their origin is not Milan but probably Bologna.

The Devil is consistently portrayed in the Renaissance as a hairy monster with horns, bat wings, the claws of a bird as feet and often a second face on the genital area. The second scene is generally portrayed as a building being destroyed by fire, sometimes struck by lightning and often with one or two people falling down. This scene reminds us to the disasters striking the Earth at the opening of the Seventh Seal in the Apocalypse. Personally, I prefer to call this scene God’s Anger.

In the ascension of the Soul during After-Life, these scenes represents the bad acts we have committed in life. All our bad acts, symbolised by the Devil will be remembered and punished, symbolised by the Anger of God. This process of self knowledge and self cleaning is necessary before a human soul can raise to heaven.

Pair 9 : Growing light

The Star and The Moon

The Star and The Moon

After the passage of the Soul through the darkest places in After Life, lights begin to appear. First there is the twinkling of the stars, then the brighter light of the Moon is appearing in the darkness. The Star and the Moon are symbolized by the Roman goddesses Venus and Diana. They are both dressed in the same colours as the Virtues Temperance and Fortitude and behind them there are the same dark mountains remembering us our difficulties to respect the moral values.

The Star represented on the Visconti Sforza is thus Venus, goddess of Love and the brightest star in the night. In fact, the Morning Star is a traditional personification of God’s Love representing here that he’s forgiving our bad acts. The Moon is the Goddess Diana. This card emphasises that you have to know darkness in order to recognise light. You have to know the darker parts of your inner self, and correct these bad parts, before you can be a light for other people.

The Star and The Moon

The Star and The Moon

The Tarot of the Este family threats the subject on a different way without changing the signification of the cards. On the card representing the Star, we see a very bright Star and two astronomers calculating its trajectory. In Fact, the star on this card is probably the Star of Bethlehem that announces the birth of Jesus, the son of God, who has been send to Earth by love for human mankind and to save the human race for eternity. Here the Star represents thus also God’s Love. Love is, after Faith and Hope, the third and most important Virtue directly related to God. Note that Love is often replaced as a Virtue by Charity in order to differentiate Love for your neighbour from physical love.

On the next card we see an eclipse of the Moon and again an astronomer performing some calculations. The eclipse of the Moon is the perfect symbol for the passage through the darkness before you can see the light. The astronomers on both cards reinforce the close relationship between these cards.

Pair 10 : The lights of Heaven

The Sun and The World

The Sun and The World

The last pair of the Visconti Sforza is the most beautiful, representing all positive aspects of light. In the first card we see a naked and winged boy reaching for the Sun, source of live on Earth. In the second card, the same boy, assisted by a second one, holds an image of the New Jerusalem, symbol for Paradise in Heaven. The dark mountains on the card are now far away, indicating that the previous difficulties are now only a far memory. In fact, these two cards, representing the ascension of the human Soul into Paradise, are by far the most positive cards of the whole Tarot deck.

The naked boys symbolise absolute innocence. The Soul has returned to the state of innocence that it had at the birth of a child, with an absolute purity of mind. The Soul has accomplished the cycle of life and is ready for Rebirth

Pair 11 : Justice

The original pair 7 became finally pair 11, with Justice as the Virtue governing the third level and the Last Judgement on top the three Virtues. While both Justice cards were already existing, there was no place for the Virtue Prudence. In any case, this was not of great importance. In the Renaissance both virtues where often exchanged, and someone who practises one of these two virtues, automatically practises the other.

The Tarot Wheel

So the final structure of the Visconti Sforza tarot is the following. We have three levels with in each level three sub levels consisting of a pair of two cards. The three levels together are describing the cycle of human life. The easiest way to emphasise this cycle is to arrange these eighteen cards in the form of a circle.

Each of these three levels is governed by a moral value, the level of Society, representing the Soul of Appetite is dominated by the Virtue Temperance. The three sub levels in Society are represented by three pairs of two cards, respectively ordinary people, symbolized by the Village Fool and the Street Performer, then the Authorities, symbolized by the Empress and the Emperor and finally the moral leaders, represented by the Female Pope and the Pope. The place of Temperance is above the first level of three pairs of cards, so we place her there as the first spoke of the Tarot Wheel.

Temperance
Village Fool – Street Performer Empress – Emperor Female Pope – Pope

The next level describes the Journey of the Soul through human life, representing the Soul of Will. According Plato, its corresponding Virtue is Fortitude. Again we find three pairs of two cards, first the Victory over your sexual desire, symbolised by a promise of marriage and secondly the chariot of victory, that stands for mastering your lust of power. The second pair is related to Time, with the Wheel of Fortune, just as the Tarot Wheel, a symbol for the human life cycle followed by the Old Man or Father Time himself. The third pair is standing for Transition with as first card the hanged man, representing a major irreversible incident in human life and next Death, representing the transition of the Soul from human life to After Life. The Virtue Fortitude is placed above this group of three pairs of cards as the second spoke of the Tarot Wheel

Fortitude
Marriage – Chariot of Victory Wheel of Fortune – Father Time Hanged Man – Death

The highest level of the Soul is the Soul of Reason. It is represented in the Visconti Sforza Tarot by the journey of the Soul through After Live, from the deepest darkness of Hell to the brilliant light of God in Heaven.

The first pair represents terrors of Hell, with the first card showing the Devil representing our bad acts and a second card showing the Anger of God destroying the Evil of the Devil representing the punishment for these deeds The philosophy behind is that we have to be aware of our acts and that we have to regret and repair the damage we have done before we can rise to Heaven.

In the second pair light is appearing in the darkness with as a first card the Star, representing God’s Love saving us from evil and secondly the Moon, representing knowledge of your inner self. You need to know your inner self before You can see the Light and appear in front of God’s Justice.

The highest pair represents this Eternal Light with the Sun and the World, the World representing Paradise in Heaven. At this level we know our inner self and the Soul found back its state of purity that it had at our Birth. This purity is symbolized by the innocence of naked children. The Soul is ready for the Judgement of God for Rebirth or Eternity.

According to Plato, in order to purify the Soul of Reason we need to practice Prudence. Those who are practising Temperance, Fortitude and Prudence, are also practising Justice. Because the Justice card existed long before the other two virtues, it replaces here Prudence, and we find above this level the Virtue Justice as a third spoke of the Tarot Wheel.

Justice
Devil – Lightning (God’s Anger) Star (God’s Love) – Moon Sun – World (Paradise in Heaven)

Finally in the axis of the Tarot Wheel we find the image of God himself resurrecting the Death and judging the Soul, deciding between Rebirth and Eternity. Rebirth for those whose life wasn’t perfect and Eternity for those who lived as a Saint.

And this brings us to the last image of the Visconti Sforza Tarot, presenting the Tarot Wheel. Nine pairs of two cards form the Tyre of the Wheel. Remark the place of the Village Fool, both before the Street Performer as the first card of the human life cycle and next to and after the World representing reincarnation. At the next level, the three spokes of the Wheel are formed by three cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice. And finally on the highest level, in the axis of the Wheel, the Last Judgement with an image of God judging the human Soul.

tarot wheel

The Tarot Wheel

Remark the importance of the number three in this arrangement. As a tyre we have 3 groups of 3 pairs each. The whole structure consists also of three levels, the 18 cards representing the human life cycle from birth to rebirth forming the first level, the 3 virtues representing the moral values as a second level and last but not least, the last judgement, representing God’s Justice, forming the third level. Tarot in the Renaissance was certainly a game, but is was also a educational tool to explain the structure of Life.

And here ends my theory about the internal structure of the Visconti Sforza Tarot. This structure is based on the analysis of the images themselves. Can this structure be used for other Tarot games? It surely can, but because each author had its own view on the Tarot, the resulting Tarot Wheel differs from game to game. In the context of this article, the space is not available, but this fascinating story about the original structure of the Tarot will be further extended to the Tarot of Marseille during the Tarot Convention in Sainte Suzanne in September this year [2011].

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