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.


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.

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.

St. Jude – King of Coins

“Thanks to St. Jude for favours received” was in constant evidence in the personal ads in the local paper I read when young. I always wondered what that meant, it seemed so mysterious to a non-Catholic.

My only other reference for St. Jude is the actor Danny Thomas, who founded the famous St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital back in the early 1960s as a thank you to St. Jude for favours received when he met success in his acting career. I always wondered what that was all about too.

So here I am. As it says on The Saint Deck, “anguish” or “desperation;” St. Jude is the patron Saint of lost causes.

Jude was the brother of James and also an apostle. I didn’t know that, and he is rarely mentioned in the bible. He was martyred by being clubbed to death, hence the staff or club he is holding on the Tarot of the Saints card. His full name was Judas Thaddaeus but for obvious reasons, he is known as Jude to differentiate him from the traitorous Judas Iscariot. He is often called Thaddaeus too, again to set him apart from the Traitor.

Although there is an epistle from Jude in the New Testament, it is not actually clear that he wrote it. He may have preached the gospel with Saint Simon who shares his feast day, and they were both martyred in Persia. Or not, that is an apocryphal document so not accepted by all; another saint whose history is somewhat iffy. He is also mixed up sometimes with another Thaddaeus who preached in Mesopotamia.

It is thought that because of Jude’s neglect and apparent non-existence in accounts and documents, this is why he morphed into the patron of those who were neglected or a lost cause. That only seemed to happen in the 20th century, thus encouraging his current popularity and invocation. My edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Saints says: “St. Jude enjoys great popularity as a powerful intercessor for those in desperate straits, as students of the publicity columns of The Times newspaper are aware.” Or students of the personal ads in the Toronto Star are aware!

As the King of Coins, the coin he holds has the face of Jesus on it, and his kingly intercession for people seems to fit well with this archetype of worldly matters and practical groundedness. He is secure in his position as an apostle whether we remember him or not, and he passes that security on to those who invoke him.

That is my final card in the court cards of this deck, so I’m almost done, just six more Major cards. I shall miss these people.

St. Elizabeth – Queen of Coins

This is St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the daughter of the King of Hungary in the early 13th century. Her mother was German and was murdered by Hungarian nobles in what is described as a hate crime. Elizabeth was a serious and pious child who happily married at the age of 14 and had three children. She wanted to spread her happiness through charity. She funded hospitals, orphanages, and personally took an interest in the poor and sick, often ministering to them herself. As a princess, she had her own family money that she used for charity.

Coins, otherwise known as Pentacles: this Queen has always meant a mother archetype to me as opposed to The Empress who other people feel is the mother in tarot. Elizabeth thought of others instead of herself and spent her life committed to the welfare of others, much like a mother. She sewed clothes for people and baked bread for them, some stories have her going fishing to get food for people. I wonder if losing her mother at an early age made her more mindful of care for others? My own mother was like that.

Her husband Ludwig, who was always supportive of her charity, died of the plague during a crusade, and her brother used that as an excuse to kick her out of her home, and took over the handling of her money so that she couldn’t give it away. Apart from losing her home and autonomy, Elizabeth felt the joy had gone out of her life with the death of her husband.

There are some stories of her joining the third order of St. Francis, where the man who was her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, bullied and made her fearful, even physically abused her with corporal punishment. He was an experienced papal inquisitor in cases of heresy so his reputation might have come down through history influenced by people’s attitude toward that, but he was a severe fellow, and I get the feeling he took a personal dislike to Elizabeth and used his position simply to bully her. He was apparently harsh with himself too, but his wild accusations and fanaticism eventually got him murdered. An act which few seem to have been sorry about, he was so unpleasant.

Yet Elizabeth was obedient and humble and carried on, comparing herself to grass that is beaten down by heavy rain and then pops up again. She refused to marry again and lived austerely, depriving herself of basic needs, and died as a result when she was only twenty-four. Maybe if she’d had a different spiritual advisor she would have found a better way to live and contribute to the world than opting for excessive mortifications causing her own death? There is something of the martyrdom of mothers in her death. Mothers can sacrifice themselves to their children’s well-being, denying themselves greatly: a small warning bell to this archetype.

I was interested in what exactly a third order, or tertiary order, is. It is a way for lay people to join a religious order without taking full vows. Some people live in the monastery and others live in the secular world while still being associated with the order in this way. The name comes from the formal Third Rule of religious orders like the Benedictines or Franciscans. The Third Order of St. Francis has become the model for other orders, so it seems natural that in addition to her devotion to poverty, Elizabeth would have gravitated toward this order in particular, since it might have been more welcoming to laypeople during her time period.

St. Lawrence – Knight of Coins

St. Lawrence is carrying a metal grate or gridiron which reminds me of the torture of poor St. Blandina and the martyrs of Lyons. In our current society I hear of shootings, massacres, and death frequently, but this prevalent violence hasn’t inured me to the horrific deaths of some of the Saints.

Lawrence was a deacon of the Church in Rome under Pope Sixtus II. Not much is known about him apart from this association and his death.

The Roman emperor Valerian had forbidden Christians to assemble and also forced them to worship using pagan rites in the year 257. Naturally, the Pope defied this order, so he and several officials were beheaded in 258. The remaining officials of the Church were also killed; St. Lawrence met his death four days after the Pope. Some accounts say he was beheaded like the Pope and others say he was roasted on a grid. It could be another instance where the legend was embellished centuries later because by the fourth century he was firmly venerated.

St. Lawrence was buried and his grave marked through the years with plaques and churches, and as veneration for him grew, so did the churches. His shrine is now housed in the Papal Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura) in Rome. It is one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome. It was bombed during World War II in 1943 and lost some frescoes, and during restoration in the late 1940s they removed some 19th century renovations, but it still stands, with frescoes, carvings and reliefs, tombs, and mosaics from various periods. This is a picture of the 13th century facade, which reminds me so much of Florentine architecture and Dante.

In the imagery on the tarot card, Robert Place has Lawrence holding gold coins, a reference to the wealth of the Church, supposedly entrusted to Lawrence after the Pope’s death, which he distributed to the poor to keep the money from Roman coffers. Lawrence was then singled out for special torture because of this act of defiance, which is why the gridiron story might have started with this part of the legend.

Who knows? The Church cautions against support of such verbal embellishments since there are no contemporary written accounts of such things in relation to Lawrence. Place mentions it, but then I sometimes find Place using his own projections in his writing. However, it’s part of the legend which is naturally why he depicted it.

As for the tarot archetype, I am starting to think I am being followed by “Old Stodgy” as I call him. This knight is a reliable fellow, as Lawrence was. Good with money perhaps and with feet solidly planted to the ground of steadfast belief. Not a bad guy to have as a deacon of the Church in a crisis.