18 – ANATOMY OF A CHIMERA – PART 2

Continued from part one.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760, detail of the animal.

That’s not all. Let’s carefully observe the lion’s head. In profile, its right ear should be visible. At the place where we would expect it to be, we discover not one, but two ears. The first one is just an arc of a circle traced near the external corner of the lion’s eye. It corresponds well to a natural lion’s morphology: rather small, round-shaped, and standing up. The second is better positioned, under the first, but it is not a lion’s ear — it is that of a dog, drooping. Now, if we consider the beast’s muzzle, long and slightly turned up, we realize it cannot be that of a feline, which would be much more massive and compact. We mistook the animal for a lion only because we believed to be seeing the traditional allegory of Strength. What we are really seeing is only a big dog.

Why did the engraver apply himself to trace a very bold line between the animal’s muzzle and the rest of its body? Neither lions nor dogs usually present such a feature. The line might have another function in the image. Let us turn the card upside down and concentrate again on the animal’s head, mentally cutting it along the bold line to eliminate the dog’s muzzle.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760: detail of the animal.

Now another head appears, at least its top part, with two pointed ears and a ferocious eye. One need only imagine its jaw full of pointed teeth – supposedly masked by the woman’s dress – to see in it a ferocious beast. A print by the Lombard engraver Zoan Andrea, probably made in the first years of the 16th century from a Leonardo da Vinci design, represents a lion attacked by a dragon. The dragon’s head corresponds so well with that of the ferocious beast that we need to hypothesize that both images are derived from the same source.

Zoan Andrea, Lion attacked by a dragon, c. 1500.

Zoan Andrea, Lion attacked by a dragon, c. 1500, with a detail from the Tarot of Marseille’s Strength pasted over the head of the dragon.

At first, we thought the animal was a lion, but then we see a dog, and if we turn the image upside down, the head of a ferocious beast appears. Are we prey to delirium? Have we stared for far too long at the complex meanderings of an old engraving? I’m not so sure, if we remember Socrates’ words describing the beast:

[…] a single shape of a manifold and many-headed beast that has a ring of heads of tame and wild beasts and can change them and cause to spring forth from itself all such growths. [1]

The 11th trump card of the tarot of Marseille thus appears as an astonishing portrait of Plato’s chimera.  It presents several heads, one of a wild beast, the other of a tame one. Moreover, the composition can “change them and cause to spring forth from itself all such growths, as the simple act of turning the card upside down is sufficient to create this metamorphosis.

If we return to the card as a whole, we can identify each and every element of Plato’s chimera: 1) The multi-headed monster. 2) The lion. 3) The man. 4) The covering. That still is not all, as another strange detail in the card still arouses our curiosity. If we continue searching the card, turned upside down, we discover a flower bud that seems to grow in the entanglement of the beast’s hair.

Nicolas Conver, Strength, 1760: detail of the animal.

What is this vegetative part doing at the heart of the animal? Again, Plato’s tale in book 9 of the Republic provides the explanation for that incongruous presence. Socrates had proposed the image of the beast as a visual model to better explain his thought. He uses it to make progress in the search that underlies the 10 books of the Republic: What is justice? Plato intended to show the complexity of the human soul: The interior man represents the power of reason; the multi-headed monster is the desiring force that can be used either for good or bad purposes, multiple and fickle; and the lion is the ardor of sentiment, lending its support either to the interior man or to the monster. Having identified these forces, Plato describes their behavior in the soul, depending on the inclination of the soul with respect to the notion of Justice. In the soul of the individual who reckons that it is worthwhile to commit injustice, man is described as fattening the multifarious monster to which he provides force, as well as to the lion, to the detriment of man himself, who becomes so weak that the two others take him where they want, and who, for not having familiarized the two beasts with each other and created friendship between them, leaves them to “bite and fight and devour one another.”[2]

In the soul of the individual who judges the just to be worthwhile, the protean monster becomes a garden and the interior man a farmer who “cherishes and trains the cultivated plants, but checks the growth of the wild. He will make an ally of the lion’s nature, and caring for all the beasts alike will first make them friendly to one another and to himself, and so foster their growth.”[3] Thus, the image proposed by Plato, in its evolution, offers us a striking contrast. At first, he shows, in the soul of the unjust, the furious battle between the multi-headed monster and the lion. Then he presents, in the soul of the just, the pacified garden, in which the vegetative element seems most natural. This, in all likelihood, explains the presence of the flower bud in the card.

[1] Plato, Republic, 588d (transl. Paul Shorey).

[2] Plato, Republic, 589a (transl. Paul Shorey).

[3] Plato, Republic, 589b (transl. Paul Shorey).

To be informed when new episodes are published, subscribe to the ‘Villa Stendhal’ Facebook page: