By Christine Payne-Towler
January 21, 2006
Attempting to understand the worldview of the culture from which Tarot emerged leads the modern mind into wonderful territories of vision and imagination. Study of the magical arts and architecture bequeathed to us from the High Middle Ages lets us know that from the beginning, the Trumps existed on more than the superficial layer of their standard forms and overt subject matter.
Modern scholars have become increasingly aware of the invisible cultural lens that has always shaped what we can and cannot see of the true Renaissance paradigm. One author that dedicated students of Tarot can look towards for trustworthy insights into magic and esotericism in Tarot's imagery is Fred Gettings. His excellent books are written from the perspective of an art historian with a subspecialty in magic and the esoteric paradigm. The Book of Tarot (printed in America under the name Tarot: How To Read The Future) is a classic. From his Encyclopedia of the Occult we read:
"Many of the amulets derived from occult symbolism were even in medieval times called 'imagines', and as a result these are even now sometimes called 'images'. Paracelsus defines the 'science' of the image as that of representing the properties of heaven and 'impressing them' into the material realm. In the occult tradition the man-made (or, more appositely, magic-made) image is far more powerful than a natural signature, for a 'like virtue is not found in any herbs'." (p. 114).
Magical images can be of several sorts. We are all familiar with the Trump images, but other kinds of visuals were also circulating at the same time among the related disciplines of the esoteric sciences. Take, for example, the astrological descriptions of the "faces" of the Decanates, described by Agrippa and pictured on the walls of the Schifanoia Palace in Italy (presently appearing on the pips of the Estensi Tarot, AKA The Golden Tarot of the Renaissance).
The tiered courses of the Hermetic Cosmos (as seen in the Mantegna series, Camillo's Memory Theater, and Johannes de Bry's "Mirror of the Whole of Nature and Images of Art") were proliferated to include the Muses, Liberal Arts, Angels, and classical god forms as well as the standard signs, planets and elements, thus keeping the pagan deities alive in the mind of the times. Then there are the Seals of Solomon, representing the energies of the Planets, but also including other symbols, names of angels, magical alphabets, numbers, and various sigils. A particular subset of these Seals is Reuchlin's 'signacula memoratiava,' which represent the 5-degree zodiac segments of the 72 Shemhamphoresh angels derived from Genesis.
This great collection of thumbnail introductions to the most prominent of the Renaissance Magi can remind us again how important the potentized image, keyed to the values of astrology, numerology and angelology, was to the tenor of the times.
A gold mine of perspective on this "inner eye" of the magi comes from Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan P. Couliano, published by the University of Chicago Press, 1987, with forward by Mircea Eliade. Couliano was a historian of religions and a specialist in Late Antiquity and gnosticism as well as a Romanist and an expert on the Balkans, teaching at the University of Groningen. He was a fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (Wassenaar) and Professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago at the time of his death. I want to highlight some of his points because he was so precise to explain something we in the modern world seldom think about, but are influenced by every day of our lives, and which is a pivotal issue in understanding what makes an image Magical in the late Middle Ages.
As the outset of his discussion, (p.4-6), Couliano refers us back to the inheritance from Classical philosophy which formed the cornerstone of magical theory in Europe right up to the modern era -- the "three worlds" schema. In brief, Plato's writings highlighted the presence of a distressing gap between the ideal realm of the Soul and the greatly diminished perfection of the Body in Nature. Plato portrayed Socrates teaching the idea that through increasingly upgrading the human experience of love, a way can be found to narrow the gap between the realms, linking the lover to the Ideal through increasingly refined appreciation of the Ideal within the Real.
Advancing this thought, Aristotle later "...define[s] empirically the relations between these two separate entities....[to resolve the split,] Eros [genuine love] will be envisioned in the same way as a sensory activity, as one of the processes involving the mutual perceptible soul-body relation.... as a result, the erotic mechanism, like the process of cognition, will have to be analyzed in connection with its... subtle physiology of the apparatus which serves as intermediary between soul and body."
In other words, a third function is being defined that fills the gap. It is the organ of Eros, linking the divine with the natural through love.
"This apparatus is composed of the same substance -- the spirit (pneuma) -- of which the stars are made and performs the functions of primary instrument (proton organon) of the soul in its relation to the body. Such a mechanism...resolve[s] the contradiction between the corporeal and the incorporeal. It is so subtle that is approximates the immaterial nature of the soul, and yet it is a body which, as such, can enter into contact with the sensory world. .... Called phantasia or inner sense, the sidereal spirit transforms messages from the five senses in phantasms perceptible to the soul.... The senses interior, inner sense or Aristotelian common sense, which had become a concept inseparable not only from scholasticism but also from all western thought until the eighteenth century, is to keep its importance even for Descartes and reappear, perhaps for the last time, at the beginning of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason...
"Body and soul speak two languages, which are not only different, even inconsistent, but also inaudible to each other. The inner sense alone is able to hear and comprehend them both, also having the role of translating one into the other. But considering the words of the soul's language are phantasms, everything that reaches it from the body -- including distinct utterances -- will have to be transposed into a phantasmic sequence. Besides -- must it be emphasized? -- the soul has absolute primacy over the body. It follows that the phantasm has absolute primacy over the word, that it precedes both utterance and understanding of every linguistic message. Whence two separate and distinct grammars...a grammar of the spoken language and a grammar of phantasmic language."
"Stemming from the soul, itself phantasmic in essence, intellect alone enjoys the privilege of understanding the phantasmic grammar. It can make manuals and even organize very serious-minded games of phantasms. But all that will be useful to him principally for understanding the soul and investigating its hidden potentialities. Such understanding, less a science than an art because of the skill which must be deployed to catch the secrets of the little-known country where the intellect travels, involves the assumption of all the phantasmic processes of the Renaissance: Eros, the Art of Memory, theoretical magic, alchemy, and practical magic." [Italics are Couliano's; paragraph breaks are mine]
According to Couliano, the phantasmagoric imagination of human intellect, referent for the notion of "common sense," represents the middle term and the tie that binds the Ideal realm of the Soul to the tangible reality of time and space in flesh. This intellectual imagination is a body of its own, a thing, impacting upon both the physical and the metaphysical universes. The words of its grammar, the products of its working, are things too, sidereal things, made up of the same stuff the stars are made of. These things are called phantasms, and their reality at a soul level precedes their reality as verbalized conceptions, images, carvings, ciphers, names, or other symbolic objects in the world of flesh. [See Outlines of a History of Phantasy by William A. Covino ]
The existence of phantasms is only perceptible through the imagination of the intellect, and they provide the only method for contacting the soul. In this context, an education is of inestimable value to the soul, since it plows and sows the imagination with ideas from any number of disciplines. This is the goal of scholasticism, as a matter of fact, which is why the Art of Memory was invented; to teach the scholar how to organize his mind for the reception of the largest education he could hold. (And I hope my reader got Couliano's hint about "serious-minded games of phantasms"!)
Now let us turn to Conjuring Spirits; Text and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic, edited by Claire Fanger, published in 1998 by the Pennsylvania State University Press. This is one of four volumes published as part of the "Magic in History" series, the focus being to "explore the role magic and the occult have played in European culture, religion, science and politics.... [to] contribute towards an understanding of why the theory and practice of magic have elicited fascination at every level of European society."
In chapter V, "Visual Arts in Two Manuscripts of the Ars Notoria" by Michael Camille, some very interesting remarks are made about the concept of Magus in Medieval Europe. The Ars Notoria, a branch of image-magic growing out of the old Solomonic version of the Art of Memory, taught "the making of figures and designs, and they must be different from one another and each assigned to a different branch of learning." (p. 110) In distinguishing the Solomonic usage from the Medieval application....”it is suggested that these images 'must be different from one another' in a way that dos not pertain to the usual medieval aesthetic category of varieties. The variety of shapes and signs here served a specifically magical purpose. "
It is acknowledged that the fourteenth century saw a rise in church-led persecutions of magic of all kinds, "But as Kalssen suggests in his essay also in this volume (English Manuscripts of Magic, 1300-1500: A preliminary Survey, by Frank Klaasen), the type of ritual magic presented in the Ars Notoria seems to have been more widespread than has hitherto been supposed, and appears to have been deemed less dangerous than other forms of magic in this period. This was in part because of its association with orthodox learning, but also, as I shall argue here, because those who developed it were building on a long tradition of using images to communicate complex forms of knowledge. Throughout the Middle Ages, the visual and magical arts were intimately intertwined."(p. 112)
"From the beginning of the thirteenth century, those who criticized magic often made reference to its inherently visual nature.... With a few powerful exceptions like the pioneer iconographers Aby Warburg and Fritz Salx [as well as others]...art historians have been hesitant to approach the magic of the image. Recent interest in the power of images has begun to address phenomena such as fascination and sympathetic magic, but this research has also tended to functionalize the instrumentality of the object, divorcing the aesthetic from the magical. The Ars Notoria is just one of a number of case studies I want to make of how magic and image-making are inextricably linked and how the nascent notion of art was linked both to forbidden forms of knowledge as well as licit practices in this period." (p. 112)
"The Ars Notoria was in fact well named, being inextricably linked to the conventional notion of ars and the seven liberal arts that had structured medieval education from the time of Boethius. It involved the reception of an already inherited and revealed set of visual signs or notae that functioned as a meditative and diagrammatic link between the operator and the celestial powers who delivered the knowledge. Whereas much medieval magic involving the inscribing of images or signs and the rituals surrounding them were spells or charms for the usual humdrum list of human needs -- love, health and harming one's enemies -- the [Notary] Art was used for a far more elevated purpose than 'to keep bugs out of the house'. Its aim was nothing less than to provide its user with knowledge of all the mechanical and liberal arts in as short a time as possible" (p. 115) ... "But if they functioned properly, these images did not need to be memorized in the traditional way, since their magical effect linked the operator directly to the celestial powers responsible for the enhancement of memory." (p. 117)
Of course, we know that already,because of the earlier remarks about the way these notae reference the phantasms that they represent, putting the user in direct touch with the soul-substance of that idea, archetype, or energetic entity.
"Normally the relationship between text and image in a medieval manuscript is one in which the image is secondary to, or at least dependent upon the text for its validity and existence. In this case, however, the nota (which is neither a text nor a painting in the traditional sense) seems to have priority as the form to be taken in through prayer and ritual practice by its user." (p. 119)
Last remarks from Camille remind us that the Ars Notoria were not as marginalized as the other magical arts of the time, because of its close association with scholasticism and the traditional images from which it was drawn.
"...it would be wrong to separate images into an orthodox, non-magical realm and an illicit, magical one: the two realms are permeable in practice..."(p. 124) ""...the visual aspects of these manuscripts reveal the way in which magical practices are not only intimately connected with, but built out of the very structures of orthodox discourse against which they are so often opposed. It is important to remember that in the encyclopedic sculptural program of the North Transept foreportal at Chartres Cathedral, Magic appears as a personification in a new program of the mechanical arts, probably dating from the early fourteenth century. ... The close [juxtaposition] of the art of painting and the art of magic, both rejected from the list of the seven liberal arts, should remind us of the manuscripts of the Ars Notoria where we see brilliantly combined the visual and magical arts, in an attempt to provide access to the higher realms of another knowledge from which both were excluded." (p. 135)
By looking at the cards in our oldest Tarot packs and considering them with the kind of mentality that has been highlighted here, we can immediately see that the illustrated cards are more than just "pretty faces". Both due to their titles and to the amount of significant detail registered in the design of each image, they conform to the canon of Image Magic specifications.
The fact that they also directly reference Art of Memory values which historically possessed assignments of planetary, zodiacal, elemental and numerological correspondences, makes these otherwise-obscure images light up with at least potential magical meaning. The question is really not "Do the Tarot cards carry magical import?” but is instead "In what way, according to which body of correspondences, are the Tarot cards magical?"
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Publisher, The Tarot Arkletters
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
Author: The Underground Stream;
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The Tarot ArkLetters are a publication of Christine Payne-Towler, founder of Tarot University Online. Christine offers classes, readings, and private sessions.
*copyright 2005-2006 christine payne-towler all rights reserved
FOR YOUR REFERENCE:
TEXT, IMAGE AND OFF-SITE LINKS
A Memory Garden - http://www.aoda.org/articles/memory2.htm
Shifanoia Palace - http://www.astralis.it/ferrara_e.htm
astrological descriptions - http://noreah.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/ferrarashallofmonths.jpg
Camillo's Memory Theatre - http://cotati.sjsu.edu/spoetry/folder6/ng6211.html
Reuchlin's Signacula Memoratiava - http://www.monas.nl/think/christiancabala.htm
Renaissance Magi - http://www.monas.nl/think/occultrenaissance.htm
Astrology, Numerology - http://noreah.typepad.com/.shared/image.html?/photos/uncategorized/afmesthenaudschart.jpg
Magic in the Renaissance - http://www.princeton.edu/~renaiss/events/RenaissanceMagic.html
Eros and Magic - http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/2674.ctl
Eros and Psyche - http://www.plotinus.com/eros_pictures_copy2.htm
Intellectal imagination - http://www.prometheus.cwc.net/m01eros.htm
Outlines of a History - http://jac.gsu.edu/jac/12.2/Articles/7.htm
Conjuring Spirits - http://www.magusbooks.com/OGA/etc/conjure.htm
Magic in History Series - http://www.psupress.org/books/book_series.html#magic
Ars Memoria - http://www.silcom.com/~dlp/mnem3.html
Art of Memory - http://www.silcom.com/~dlp/aom/aom_biblio.html
Bruno's Eros Magic - http://www.renaissanceastrology.com/bruno.html
Bruno's Planetary Images - http://www.renaissanceastrology.com/brunoplanetaryimages.html
Llul's Philosophy Tree - http://lullianarts.net/dpt/treehtx.html
long tradition - http://gate.cia.edu/cbergengren/arthistory/medieval/index1new/
Murner's Logica Memorativa - http://www.wopc.co.uk/germany/murner.html
Aby Warburg - http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/mnemosyne/images/2/
Ars Notoria - http://www.esotericarchives.com/notoria/notoria.htm
visual signs - http://www.esotericarchives.com/solomon/or14759.htm
inscribing of images - http://solsticestudios.net/talismans.htm
mechanical arts - http://solsticestudios.net/talismans.htm
Murner - http://www.geocities.com/tarocchi7/murner.html
Logica Memorativa Playing Cards - http://www.wopc.co.uk/germany/murner.html