Tarot of the Saints Wrap-Up

April 1st, 2010

It’s a very human thing to want to wrap things nicely, so here are my observations:

It was never my intention to study the entire deck, I was merely curious about St. Helena, but then carried on. Originally I started this on a forum, which unfortunately jumped the shark to ultimate vacuity some years ago. So I took my study to this blog, and continued on, and on, and on. December 2006 to April Fool’s Day 2010.

Generally, I like to suspend disbelief when authors and artists create decks. They make an enormous effort to paint and write these things, so if they want to put someone startling on a card I figure I can learn from that. Most of the time Robert Place seems to have a very fresh vision of a subject that has been examined repeatedly. I disagreed a few times with him, but more with his historic conjecture than his system. The man is a superb artist and has my utmost respect for his skill in composition and illustration. I have seen people complain about the Minor cards in this deck, which are what are described as “semi-illustrated pips,” but I found their simplicity to be one of the best features of this deck, with some odd relationships there that caused me to think more deeply than the canned meanings of most tarot decks.

I would never undertake the commitment to study an entire 78 cards like this again unless I was writing a book myself on a deck. Which gives you an echo of how compelling I found Place’s work, and the history behind it. Kudos to Bob, I wish he would undertake a Dante deck.

I bought two large encyclopedias of Saints to use in this study, and a book depicting devotional cards of Saints, which have all become a valued part of my book collection, as has my paperback dictionary of Saints which was rescued from the garbage.

My writing is a personal study, and as such I wrote about how I reacted personally to the cards and the Saints themselves. I am haunted by some of the more horrific stories like St. Blandina and the martyrs of Lyons. My write-up for St. George was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but over years, some of these legends develop a humorous aspect that it is impossible not to see. Architecture comes into it a lot for me, and several of the images I used are from playing cards that depict art and statuary of the Saints. I also had a great time looking up some of the churches and reliquaries salient to each Saint. There was a rich, visual pleasure of Art with a capital “A” concomitant to studying the deck. I wrangled with The Sun card, perhaps offensively, but it offended my sensibility, so there it is.

I also feel sad, which was why I delayed finishing the study up in January. It’s hard when you make a commitment to something to let it go, but I have come to the end.


XXI – St. Sophia – The World

This is the final card, I’ve done all seventy-eight over the last three years, and I have learned so much.

Sophia relates to the Shekinah in Judaism and I first came across her in The Grail Tarot in that respect. She is like the divine feminine, sometimes referred to as the Bride of God, or his virgin spirit. She is a feminine aspect of God or a divine presence of the feminine aspect. It is like God dwelling or inhabiting the tabernacle or temple, like the spirit of God comes down to settle like a bird; her presence makes God more perceivable.

Perhaps before Christianity placed such an emphasis on Mary or the holy spirit, people needed that balance? In Christianity, the holy spirit is a parallel to the indwelling of God like the Shekinah. It reminds me of the avatars in the Hindu pantheon.

My other reference for Sophia is of course that magnificent church in Istanbul called the Hagia Sophia. I was first introduced to that by dear Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation series and later by John Romer in his Testament series. It was originally an Eastern Orthodox Christian church, the cathedral of ancient Constantinople, taken over by Muslims for hundreds of years, and it is now a museum so that we don’t have to fight and murder each other over it. The hushed reverence of Islam and Christianity surrounds the building.The beautiful Islamic calligraphy, raised on huge disks within the church is very haunting juxtaposed amid the Christian symbolism and mosaics. It is an unbelievably sacred place.

The Hagia Sophia was often called the Holy Wisdom church, and mystical thinking twists again into the idea of the divine logos that Robert Place often speaks of with reference to Gnosticism. Logos means “wisdom” in Greek, most commonly translated as “word,” and Jesus became logos in the flesh. Or to put it another way, Jesus is the incarnation of the word of God, or the incarnation of the divine logos that formed the Universe, a much more mysterious concept. And yes, we have years and years of disagreement on what logos is and what was really meant by it and translators and theologists wrangling over meaning. Robert Place is concentrating on Gnosticism, so we have Jesus as the literal incarnation of the word of God.

And Sophia is like a facet of that, another avatar of that. I borrow that phrase from Hinduism because it’s very apt. Avatar is a Sanskrit word meaning “descent,” as in the descent from heaven to earth of a deity. So it’s an appearance or manifestation of God, like Jesus, like Sophia.

I’m sure fundamentalists would rail against this terrible idea, but it has a long history in Christian doctrine and particularly the Eastern church and Judaism. I was interested to read that Hildegard von Bingen depicted Sophia in her artwork.

This is an old, old idea, and goes back to the very basis of Saints it seems to me: intercession or an intermediary to God. Humans do not feel safe in the terrible presence of God so he sends intermediaries, avatars, emanations, a more comfortable aspect of his divine presence for us.

In legend she is the mother of Faith, Hope and Charity, hence the symbols on the card at the bottom. She is sometimes referred to as the mother of all angels, which might explain her wings in Bingen’s illumination and her depiction as the Temperance angel in the Golden Tarot of the Tsar. In the corners of the card are the symbols of the four evangelists. These are often also associated with the four directions, the four elements, and the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Church. So, the three plus the four equals seven rungs of the ladder to the One in Place’s symbolism. Isn’t that interesting? He’s done it again, lovely, lovely artwork illustrating a very deep concept.

This is how Sophia is viewed across many belief systems: truly a concept belonging to The World. She does not yell or cause people to be killed with divine wrath, she settles down like a bird. The ultimate gnosis or enlightenment as Place says, oneness with God.

XX – St. Gabriel – Judgement

I got a bit confused about archangels being Saints with this card. Strange, but it was never something I questioned with St. Michael. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints explains it this way:

From the beginning of Christian history, veneration of Michael took place, and the Jews also venerated him. He does a lot in the bible and so his commanding strength was appreciated in tradition for intercession. There have been numerous legends of visions and sightings of him. There are differences about Saints in general and certainly the archangels, in local churches and also in the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches. In the traditions of the East, Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael were always honoured liturgically, but Gabriel and Raphael only started to gain popularity in the West in the 20th century.

Okay, that makes more sense to me now, since I already know of several Saints from the Eastern Church that people don’t hear of in the West. As far as these three archangels being Saints, it seems to be a matter of their great power and historic communication with people, and people wanting to commemorate and symbolize that. There are very close to God, they sit beside him, so our veneration of them brings us closer to God by association.

Gabriel is the angel that appeared to Mary during the Annunciation, he is also associated with blowing the trumpet at the Last Judgement as depicted in this picture from the deck. He tended the infant Abraham and spoke to Daniel, foretold the birth of Samson, announced the birth of John the Baptist, and I didn’t realize this, but in Islamic tradition, he dictated the Koran to Muhammed. I like Place’s notation that because Gabriel was involved in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, he demonstrates that they are all branches of the same trunk.

That fits in well with the idea of Gabriel calling us to a higher state of being. Not only resurrected from death on Judgement Day, but for me this concept of having the same religious roots. Triumph over death, and triumph over our peculiar need to fight each other to the death over supposedly disparate religious beliefs.

I remember the line from Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol during the episode of Christmas Yet To Come. Scrooge had died and the charwoman says something about him gasping his last, all alone with no one to look after him. Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilbur says “It’s a judgment on him.” Gabriel can remind us of the way we are supposed to care for each other too.

I like the idea of this archangel being the chief messenger of God. He was involved in many more events than I remember. Gabriel did announce his name on several occasions, but there are examples of unnamed angels where Gabriel is given credit, including holding the trumpet for Judgement as described in Thessalonians 4:16. In that it is described “…with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet call of God…” (NIV Bible) Gabriel being God’s messenger archangel, it seems natural to associate this event with him as the herald with the trumpet.

Michael is the warrior archangel, Gabriel the messenger in Christian tradition, and as such Gabriel seems to have a gentler presence, perhaps mindful of frightening people, and mindful of remaining calm to get the message across. Another facet of a meditation on Gabriel that can benefit us: sometimes a lower key works better.

Gabriel is often depicted with a spear or sceptre as well as a trumpet, and a shield with a lily on it or a lily in some other configuration. The lily is associated with the purity of Mary and the Annunciation, and is often in Annunciation images, so became part of Gabriel’s symbolism as well. I have seen shields with Gabriel that have suns on them or other objects, but the shield itself along with the spear or sceptre symbolizes the power of God. Archangels are often depicted with armour in any case, armour being something understandable in earlier times as a connotation of power, although not favoured today in angelic imagery.

I have a favourite picture of the Annunciation which can be seen in this discussion of the Four of Cups from this deck. Click on the image to enlarge it.

XIX – Christ – The Sun

This is the one card in the Tarot of the Saints deck that I really dislike.

The red colour of the rays juxtaposed against yellow is not a favourite combination of mine, and I prefer art that depicts Jesus as Jewish rather than a blonde or red-haired European. Place’s card has a tinge of that which makes me uncomfortable. While today there are blonde Jews, it seems illogical that they would have been blonde 2,000 years ago when the gene pool in the area of Galilee would have been much more contained with less variety in hair, eye, and skin colour.

Somewhere in time I read a couple of books about Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Essenes.  I was fascinated by discussion of Jesus as a man of the Essenene or Essene sect and the sort of beliefs and rituals and culture of the time. People dispute the Essenes, their existence, or tying Jesus and his family to them. People dispute everything, and given the penchant humans have for embellishment and legend it seems senseless to try to sort it out. So that’s my take on that. We don’t know, but realistically, look at the culture and characteristics of people in the area at the time, and forget all the notions of Jesus as Leave It To Beaver.

We can lose sight of his upbringing as a real Jewish boy, in a real family, with parents and siblings and a trade to work at. He would have known the complete range of human emotion and experience. For all its delightful moments, life is full of pain and fear and disappointment. He knew that, he lived it. This is why people connect to him, he knows us, knows how it feels.

And golly, he looks just like Brad! I’m getting cynical, but stereotype rears up yet again.

Robert Place based his artwork on the story of a Polish nun in the 1930s called Faustina Kawalska (sic) by Place and also known as Mary Faustina Kowalska or St. Faustina, who said she talked to Jesus and received predictions from him. It is her vision from 1935 of Jesus with a red and a white ray streaming from his heart that is depicted on this card. Jesus told her to paint this image of him and it has now become a religious icon. There is an image of it painted by Adolf Hyla in 1943, which is the most famous version and hangs over the tomb of this Saint, but it has been repainted in several interpretations over the years.

Oh dear. I find this sort of religious art to be creepy and very tacky. It induces a nauseating revulsion in me. Give me Bernini or Botticelli over this.

The Sun is a card that is somewhat confusing in symbolism. There are some explanations in the book about other associations with both Jesus and The Sun. It reads like mystical gobbledygook to me. I always think of the Sun with Apollo and his chariot. I can see the tie-in with Jesus as the light of the world, compared to the Sun in its physical properties or warmth and light. I like that. I’m not too impressed with Place’s cosmic bafflegab.

So, we have a picture of a doorway and a beckoning Christ as the light of the world, The red ray symbolizes his blood that was shed to atone for our sins, and the white ray symbolizes the cleansing water of baptism. He has wounds on his body to remind us of his torture and death. There is saving grace and enlightenment plus the light of new direction, the warmth of the sun and the forgiveness and release from darkness.

I will leave the other stuff in the book. The whole thing just does not hit me in a good way. It’s like a carnival sideshow with lurid exhibits. It all comes down to personal taste and how people express and celebrate their faith. Jesus has become like a kewpie doll, a comic stand-in with tendencies to exude real blood and garish, dripping wounds. Buy yours now with the certified Words of Magic to manifest his mercy in your heart. Buy it in the next five minutes and we will throw in a gold-plated celestial orb with the word logos inscribed in red. TMZ will be dropping by for an exclusive interview with Jesus next Tuesday after he wraps up filming the biography of St. Faustina.

I feel sick that God is reduced to this gimcrackery. Blah.

XVIII – St. Mary – The Moon

This is the card that originally got me going on a study of this entire deck. Someone on a forum was complaining about how she thought that Mary, the mother of Jesus, should be on The Empress card and Robert Place was all wrong. I went to examine things a little closer and here I am over three years later, writing up my impressions of the last four cards.

From 2005, quite a while ago, are some thoughts I posted in that forum mixed in with my current thoughts.

Specifying that a motherly archetype like The Empress has to be a mother to know nurturing and birth is not supportable–there are many childless people who are mothers and fathers in spirit to others in the world, some religious, some not. It is an arbitrary specification for The Empress to be a mother, so not viable to restrict the archetype to those who have physically given birth. [Note: As I discuss for The Empress card and told this woman on that forum, St. Helena WAS a mother; the whole impetus for being declared Empress by her son Constantine was that she was his mother.]

In this deck, Jesus is the Sun, and as a reflection of that, his mother Mary naturally fits the role of The Moon. There is a bit of illusion and mystery to Mary, not only in regard to the Immaculate Conception but in regard to the way her mystique nearly took over from Jesus in worship. I used to find the cult of Mary rather distasteful, because I assumed it replaced veneration for God, which is often the Protestant view of the Saints come to think of it, and probably where my attitude developed, being a Protestant. The Church worried about the cult of Mary as well in the early days which surprised me. At one point I think the Church banned her likeness because devotion to her usurped the classic place of Jesus.

I have come to understand Mary’s allure. Thinking historically, nuns and priests who voluntarily left their families and remained celibate and without children, needed a mother figure for comfort. I’m sure it’s easy to see why Mother could usurp the place of a torn and tormented saviour. After my own mother died I finally got it, I understood how men and women would need a mother figure and how she was not a replacement, but more of a bridge, an intermediary. The Queen of Heaven is approachable, like your own mother would be perhaps if you were afraid to tell your Dad something.

If you look at the history of other deities, they often encompass the idea of Mary. I am thinking specifically of Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion who started out as a male Indian deity and gradually changed into our current concept of her, with discernible acknowledgement historically to Mary, the Mother of Christ in Western traditions. Indeed, Robert Place mentions that titles attributed to ancient goddesses like “Lady” or “Queen” or “Mother” became associated with Mary. Another example of how the people morphed pagan ritual into Christianity.

Emotion, intuition, the nurturing qualities of the female, worry about family (and this woman must have worried herself sick about her children.) Deep spirituality is the Moon, and psychic premonition and the deception of others. Fears, dreams, daydreams, I like the connection to motherhood via the Moon.

There is a darker side to being the mother of a saviour to the world, the fear and worry which this highlights. Mothers are often given credit for intuition and “knowing” when their children are in trouble or something’s not right. She knew of Jesus’ inevitable death and the danger to her other children from political and religious factions. Deep, mysterious motherhood and the mental and emotional umbilical cord it carries, is much like the Moon archetype. The ghostly sadness of clouds drifting across the Moon, the deep paths of the soul who bears that knowing sadness all her life, howling into the night.

On this card, she radiates love and the grace and forgiveness of God. I like the way Place has beams of light coming from her hands, radiating out to the world. Unconditional love plus night and rest with the peace of forgiveness and understanding. Many people in Medieval times viewed her as a living presence or emanation from God, as do some people today. I was interested to see that her main feast day is January 1st, which was my mother’s birthday. She is described as the Queen of Heaven in Revelations 12:1, standing on the moon with twelve stars crowning her and clothed with the sun, as in the symbolism that Robert Place drew. See, even in the bible she is clothed with the sun/son, a reflection of Jesus on The Sun card in this deck. She is perfect for The Moon card.

She had a dark path did she not? This poor mother, knowing and carrying the cold secret of her son’s birthright all her life, the ultimate mystery.

As you might expect, there are many depictions of Mary in art. I particularly like depictions of the Annunciation in Medieval manuscripts as they are often very elaborate with beautiful borders and flora with gold highlights. She is on several of my cards, both in her motherly aspect from stories of Christ, and as a child with her own mother St. Anne. I like that aspect too as it indicates the nurturing she herself experienced.

XVII – St. Therese – The Star

UPDATE: As someone pointed out to me in the comments section, I mixed up my Saints. Place has a quote by the St. Teresa of Avila before he does his write-up for St. Therese of Lisieux. Frankly, I think given the education of Saint Teresa and the influence she had I prefer her on the card. Besides, I got to talk about Bernini.

This is St. Therese or Terese or Theresa of Avila who lived in the 16th century. My introduction to her was in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series when he discussed the famous statue of her in Rome by Bernini called The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. This statue depicts a moment of religious ecstasy that Theresa described in her autobiography. An angel supposedly thrust a divine spear of gold into her heart, inflaming her with a love of God and physical pain so acute and excessive that she moaned with pain in a kind of spiritual ecstasy as she felt her soul caressed by God.

While meant as an expression of divine joy, I can’t help but attribute sexual connotations to this “transverberation,” as she called it. I have found that some of the episodes of religious ecstasy with other Saints, as in the sacred heart of Jesus for instance, do have a tinge of hysterical women celibates getting a bit too wrapped up in devotional love, to the point of intense physical manifestations of. . . well, orgasm. While not meaning to fulfill lust or carnal desire, they do at least in our day, and I’m not sure about then. It was a very different time where faith was intense and miracles and the presence of angels and visions and such were taken for granted. For them, perhaps a physical orgasm was interpreted as the emotional ecstasy of faith? That might be taking it too far. It’s very hard to understand this as spiritual. Even Bernini who was quite religious, seems to have interpreted this physical orgasmic state in the statue although perhaps unwittingly. It seems a stretch that he couldn’t tell how people would view this. I find this slight smirk on the angel’s face rather gloating.

Kenneth Clark puts it: “…but I admit that the civilisation of these years depended on certain assumptions that are out of favour in England and America today. The first of these, of course, was belief in authority, the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.”

Kenneth also found Bernini went shockingly far in his sensual depiction of Theresa the Practical and Plain. Clark thought this illusion in part a reaction to the severities of Protestantism and the affluence of the Baroque. It was all about mythic illusion and art and beauty and emotion and hugely overdone like other things of the time.

Theresa was supposed to levitate as well as have trances and visions. She was literate and learned, writing three books that had a great influence at the time and even today; an able administrator who reformed the Carmelite order; and she had a preference for austerity and a sensible outlook, very practical. Her health was terrible in her youth and she often had dramatic headaches, fainting and pains, and she was middle-aged before some of her more practical reforms took place with improvements in her health, and she founded several convents. Her austerity was not favoured by all and eventually split the Carmelite order into two independent branches. She had a cheerful personality, affectionate, frank and witty according to contemporaries. So, another Saint whose personality and ability to inspire and live with people made her a success.

I like Robert Place saying that after her death, she delivered the stars, in her writing, community building, and witness for faith I suppose, hence her inclusion on The Star card. Place does not mention Bernini’s statue, which I think a pity since it gives us a real feel, literally, for what faith was like back then. She’s really delivering the stars in that statue. It is rather beautiful though, isn’t it?

Theresa understood the dangers of mysticism and losing herself in her rapt ecstasies, and probably put less importance on them then on her practical duties, but the sensationalism of them comes down to us, we who view such experiences with the eyes of cynicism and knowledge of Freud and Jung and human sexuality and psyche. I also view her health problems as tinged with religious hysteria, but who really knows, we weren’t there.

Without doubt, she was an exceptional human who pushed on to do lasting things.

XVI – St. Barbara – The Tower

Saint Barbara is another Saint who was deemed a myth and thus removed from the Church calendar in 1968. Her story has always reminded me of the story of Perseus and Danae in Greek mythology, so that’s my opinion of where she came from.

Her story is that her father shut her up in a tower to discourage her suitors as she was a great beauty. Or she was imprisoned for disobedience, accounts vary. Either before or while entrapped there, she became a Christian, and had workers build three windows to represent the Trinity, which enraged her father who was a rich Greek pagan. He tried to kill her and there are several accounts of miracles that allowed her to escape. He then had her tortured and more stories appear of her beheading and the lightning from heaven that struck her father dead after he killed her. All very bloodthirsty, much like a fairy tale. It reminds me of the story of Rapunzel a bit too and seems very imaginative and archetypal.

These stories rolled along for centuries and Barbara had quite a cult by the 9th century. The Church discounted all this because there is no mention of her in early historical documents. I’m betting on the romance of mythology for inspiration of the legend. People often tried to merge old beliefs and stories with Christianity.

Apart from that what can be said? I love this particular illustration of Robert Place’s, he really is a fine artist. He equates her story with the origins of this card as the House of the Devil hit by lightning. It seems natural given the symbolism that her legend be associated with this or even be the inspiration for original the tarot card, although I don’t believe that myself. Place sometimes projects a bit too much of his personal conjecture onto history, which is why I got rid of his book on tarot history.

But he’s done a bang-up job on depicting St. Barbara. I love the composition and colours, it’s one of my favourite pieces of art in the deck.