Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards, 1470






ALTHOUGH chiefly associated today with fortune-telling, divination and esoteric spirituality, the Tarot cards have a very mundane origin and were not associated with prophecy, divination, or the occult until relatively modern times.   Playing cards arrived in Europe around 1370 and were modified from their Eastern forms to include various suits representing political rivalries and ecclesiastical hierarchies.

Surviving examples include the German Hofmterspiel cards from around 1450, depicting different nations and members of a royal household.  These would later be transformed into nobility engaging in a hunt (King, Queen, Knight)

Mantegna Tarochi, 1465



IN the fifteenth century cards were produced that were probably not used for gambling, but rather for some kind of didactic instruction: these represented traditional medieval Christian interpretations of virtues, vices, and the ordering of the cosmos.  The most famous of these are the Mantegna Tarochi series created by Andrea Mantegna  (1431-1503).  The depicted images are mentioned by Mantegna's biographer, Giorgio Vasari, who states that Mantegna also devised copper prints of trionfi, triumphs or trump cards.

Mantegna Tarochi, 1465


PLAYERS of modern bridge, whist, and poker will recognize the notion of trumps (trionfi/triochi) or wild cards that trump other cards. Rather than designating a particular card or suit of cards as trumps or wild cards, a set of fixed trumps were printed together with existing suit-decks in the fifteenth century to give the so-called Tarot deck containing both four suits and a fifth set of 22 trump or triumph cards.


Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards, 1470 : World and Sun


THE designation of these as triumph cards suggests a possible reason for the subjects depicted on these cards.  In classical antiquity and less frequently in medieval Europe a successful general would be accorded a Triumph after a successful campaign.  The triumphal parade included what are today called floats: that is, wagons or chariots containing persons and objects that symbolized the social order and commemorated the victory.  In medieval Europe - and still in many places today - this triumphal parade took place during Carnival on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent: it was an opportunity to visually portray the purpose of the upcoming Lenten season.  Some historians believe that the Tarot trumps depict the familiar floats and costumed individuals who annually participated in this parade, serving as symbols that emphasized the need for cultivating virtue, avoiding vice, and conforming to the divine and terrestrial orders.



Guildhall Denis_van_Alsloot-Ommeganck_Brussels_1615_Triumph_Archduchess_Isabella


IT is only in relatively modern times that these playing cards containing echoes of medieval morality became the focus of esoteric investigations and a sort of popular religion or diagnostic tool for mind, body and spirit. [ ]



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