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.


St. George – Knight of Swords

There will always be an England if St. George lives in our memories! Hip, hip, up the Raj. St. George slays the dragon and all is right when chivalry and courage Rule Britannia. You might have guessed that St. George is the patron Saint of England. He is also the patron Saint of Germany, Portugal, Greece, Canada, the Boy Scouts and many more things.

In keeping with the Knight of Swords archetype, or Mr. Harum-Scarum as I call him, George can be seen to be rushing in, hacking dragons to death, when all he’s really got in front of him is a minor worm that could be handled with a more reasoned approach. Between the black and white is grey, between enormous and tiny, is middling small. It does remind me of Imperial Britain and her attitude toward the colonies and natives.

There is no solid historical documentation of George’s life, but after years of trying to sort it out and either verify or disprove his existence, the Catholic Church is saying that somebody lived and died. He was a martyr, and he was referred to as a good man, but the legend of the dragon was a Medieval invention apparently. George was simply a Christian man, possibly a soldier in the Roman army at Lydda, who came to be persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian in this region of Palestine around the 3rd or 4th century A.D. He was thus tortured and beheaded for his faith.

Other accounts say Diocletian was a friend of his father, an army official, and that’s why George was accepted into the army, and eventually rose to the position of Tribune in the imperial guard, where he directly clashed with Diocletian’s bias against soldiers in the Roman army who were Christian. He objected and couldn’t be persuaded to change his mind and was martyred. I’m skeptical of this enlargement of legend and personal ties to Diocletian. They say George died at Nicomedia, but this seems to be another legend. That there was a martyr who clashed with Diocletian or Dadianus (a local administrator) and was killed at Nicomedia is true, but he is not verified to be George. Diocletian himself would not have been scampering about in remote army camps in the provinces, chatting to mere soldiers about their faith, family friend or not. This story wasn’t even related to the cult of George at Lydda until much later.

People like to embellish a good story.

That wasn’t enough for Medieval literature and someone in the 12th century decided to really romanticize George. It was then written that George came to a town where a dragon was eating two people a day and the King’s daughter was next up in the lottery of townspeople to be sacrificed. So George killed the dragon and rescued the daughter. The banner with the red cross was given to him by the town and some stories say he converted the town to Christianity using the cross on the banner. This red cross is the base for the flag of Great Britain and seems to owe its birth to the Crusades rather than George, but why not throw it all into the mix? Give that guy in the scriptorium a bit more to fill up that page of vellum and paint some chopped up pieces of George’s flesh flowing with milk for marginalia and we’ve got a book, by George.

Does every story have to be bigger and better with shiny doodads, desperate maidens, cruel family friends, and dragons in it? The Patron Saint of Excessive Embellishment seems more interesting to me as he was, a dusty Roman in an out of the way place who happened to have the wrong ideas for the time and suffered terribly for it.

In the cards I have here, there are three in the Golden Tarot of the Tsar. XI Strength and the 6 of Wands refer to the dragon legend and George’s triumph there, and the 8 of Swords refers to his martyrdom and great suffering which I find moving since we so rarely hear of this aspect of his life. The playing card has a beautiful painting from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris from a French illuminated manuscript, again showcasing the dragon legend. Interestingly, St. George on the XI Strength card in the Golden Tarot of the Tsar is about intelligence dominating brutality, common sense and self-control, which is opposite to what we often think of with the Knight of Swords, a point that author Robert Place emphasizes in his text for the Tarot of the Saints.

Oops, I forgot one from the Voices of Saints.

Three months later I found another one.  I think my card collection has dis-Georged its final piece of art.

XIII – St. Stephen – Martyrdom

Card XIII in the tarot is the Death card, here transformed into “Martyrdom” by author and artist Robert Place.

I’ve been hearing about Stephen since I was a child. He’s very popular in both Protestant and Catholic tradition, a hero who is written about frequently, and how often do children learn about stoning in our modern society? Goodness, another gruesome death, although he can’t match poor St. Blandina in my mind.

I started writing this up on May 10th and stopped, I think because Stephen seemed too familiar, too prevalent I suppose; I felt there was nothing new to explore with him. Six weeks later I admit to being curious to see if I have missed something important. You know the old maxim: “Familiarity breeds contempt”? I don’t feel contempt for Stephen of course, but I feel contempt for the clean, standardized story that I often saw in picture books when young. Yeah, yeah, the sweet guy who got stoned. .  .

Stephen was made responsible for the day-to-day administration of the first Christian community in Jerusalem by the apostles, while they did ministry work. He and six other Greek-speaking men are considered the first seven deacons of the Church. The word “deacon” in Greek means “to serve” or “server” or “minister,” and these seven men were appointed to look after the Greek community in Jerusalem, particularly with charity and help toward the poor.

Eventually, false accusations of blasphemy were made against Stephen by the council of Jews. He was popular, performed miracles and sermonized, and converted many people to Christianity, and officials resented that. He went before the council and defended himself in a speech, culminating in a vision of God, which enraged the council so much that they took him outside the city and stoned him as the Law prescribed for blasphemy. The witnesses against him were told to cast the first stones, which brings an echo of the words of Jesus when speaking of Mosaic Law when he told Pharisees who had caught a woman in adultery, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” meaning that no one is really blameless of sin, so we might reflect on our self-righteousness and rage toward the deeds of others. In Stephen’s case, false accusations and hypocrisy won out, and they felt they had the right by the Law of God to kill him.

A major witness against him was Saul who became Saint Paul, and eventually had a revelation about blame and self-righteousness toward others while walking to Damascus. The entire story is a bit more than a sweet, innocent man getting rocks hurled at him, it’s about death and martyrdom, but also spiritual death and our cunning in blaming others while overlooking our own faults. As such, the involvement of Saul does carry the transformative idea of this card as well as actual Death.

The word martyr comes from the Greek and Latin for “witness.” Strange, but I never considered looking up the root of the word before, and Stephen’s death as the first Christian martyr indicates witness as the root cause of martyrdom as well as witnessing for your faith when threatened with death. The Church refers to him as “protomartyr” and he created a genre of Death, not only in reality but in the genres of fiction and film. We identify with people witnessing against us and lying about us; I doubt there is a human who does not understand false witness or hasn’t been subjected to it.

That’s why St. Stephen is so important to us, no matter what religion. Witness and law are often a convenience for hypocrites, trapping us in a sort of Death. Martyrdom does no one good, so perhaps a hint that you should disregard what others say about you, as well as a greater thought to transforming your inner spirituality and the way you react to people. A new beginning starts within.

In images, St. Stephen is shown holding a palm which is a symbol of victory held by martyred saints. In the biblical book Revelations, martyrs are described appearing before Christ in white robes and holding palms from trees in Paradise that had been given to them by angels. It is also a reminder of the palms scattered in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem and was acknowledged as the Messiah, a kind of victory march that ended in death by witness just as all martyrs die.

For all his popularity I only have one card depicting St. Stephen plus a holy card from the book Patron Saints, so perhaps this too a reflection of how we have taken Stephen for granted. He shows up in early art, frescoes, and manuscripts, but not so much today. I was certain there had to be more depth to the story, and like other Christian stories where familiarity has bred ennui, there is greater understanding and the excitement of that, if you bother to look deeper and reflect.



X – St. Catherine – Wheel of Fortune

I am disappointed to find that St. Catherine of Alexandria is another Saint that the Church in the late 1960s decided was not a real person, or at least the legends about her were historically undocumented. Her popularity plummeted. But still, in the middle ages she was very popular and was said to have appeared to Joan of Arc. She is now described as an exemplary person rather than a historical one, although the Church has not denied her existence or sainthood, just the authenticity of any texts about her. Spin that one around on the wheel in your brain.

The wheel turned quite literally. I very much like that Robert Place used her on the Wheel of Fortune, as her legend is certainly one that has fallen out of favour and sunk, as the wheel of history and scholarly examination of Church texts turned.

My first memory of this Saint was in a song by XTC called Then She Appeared where they sang:

“I was a little dazzled
Catherine wheeled and senses frazzled.”

There is something very compelling about the Catherine Wheel, it turns up frequently in songs, books, knitting patterns, even fireworks are named after the Catherine Wheel. Rose windows in stained glass are sometimes called Catherine Wheels. She meant so much to people once upon a time.

Some legends say she was martyred, or they attempted to martyr her, on a single wheel, others say four wheels. It worked either as an instrument to break someone’s limbs as they were lashed to the wheel and clubbed through the gaps, or a way to display a body (similar to crucifixion) after someone’s limbs were broken and then inserted in the wheel spokes, or it could be turned to pull and break the limbs depending on the configuration. For this reason it was called the breaking wheel before it became associated with St. Catherine.

Catherine’s wheel was said to spark, hence the fireworks development I suppose. The wheel broke by divine intervention, and they had to resort to beheading her. She seems to have also had a great spark of exceptional logic, because she is supposed to have converted 50 scholars to Christianity who had been sent by the Emperor to dissuade her from belief in Christ. Apparently one of the Roman Emperors did not take kindly to her obvious intellectual fortitude and had the scholars burned alive for their adoption of the new faith.

I did notice one thing in stories of Catherine–some say the Emperor was Maximinus, some say Maximian, some say his son Maxentius. Robert Place has cited Maximinus. Let us discuss this wonderful puzzle.

There seems to be some confusion about Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius (c. 250 – c. July 310), commonly referred to as Maximian and Caius Valerius Daja Maximinus emperor from 310 to 313 who was appointed after Maximian abdicated, and Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius son of Maximian (who was eventually killed by Constantine). The tetrarchy of the Roman emperors around this period gets a bit confusing. Maximinus seems to have been appointed emperor (or co-emperor more accurately) because they bypassed Maxentius when his father resigned–no one liked Maxentius.

A short time after this one of the co-emperor titles passed to Constantine on his father’s death. The precedent was now there for Maxentius to take his father’s title which had been passed to Maximinus, however they still didn’t want Maxentius so he had to usurp the tile that was rightfully his, and was accepted in some regions but not all, and thus became an unrecognized fifth emperor. Eventually he and Maximinus got together and went against Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius, and there was a war. Constantine and Maxentius met and Maxentius was killed. Licinius defeated Maximinus who them killed himself.

So there you go, are we all clear on this now?

It would seem that any one of these three emperors could be associated with St. Catherine although the two younger fellows seem more likely as Maximinus was a pagan and hated Christians and had them sacrificed to pagan gods and sent to mines and quarries. Maxentius seems to have hated everybody and in turn been hated, but wasn’t vilified as a Christian killer until later under the propaganda of Constantine. Which one was the guy who had 50 scholars, his wife, and St. Catherine killed for their conversion to Christianity?

I love this bit from Place after describing Catherine’s commitment as a virgin and “Bride of Christ,” he outlines Maximinus’s lecherous proposal to her and says “She, of course, was already married to a husband more wise and powerful than Maximinus, and his monstrous behaviour did not win her affection.” Very dry humour that, and Place is in the Maximinus camp obviously, so I’ll go with him there. In my opinion though, since Catherine seems to lack authentication, the association of her with any ONE particular emperor might be open to question. It all seems somewhat apocryphal to me; all three were bloodthirsty and in that territory of the Empire during a short period when she was there. Emperors never last, they die and morph into bloodthirsty archetypes.

In the book, Place has some interesting historical information on the general meaning of Fortuna’s Wheel and how it made it into medieval symbolism. It’s a bit like the Buddhist wheel of life with endless cycles of death and rebirth, with three foolish characters going up and down. One day you’re up and the next day you’re down. Like John Prine says, “That’s the way that the world goes ’round.”

But that’s good if you’re down! See the four winds on the card blow from the cardinal directions? Things are always changing.


And the devotional card from the Patron Saints book, which is pretty.