20 – THE MAN WITH THE LAMP – PART 1

I decided to make a day trip to London on January 12, 2002. It was my last chance to see an exhibition of works by the painter Pisanello at the National Gallery – an exhibition that would close the next day. Comfortably seated on the train home, with the exhibition catalog open on my knees, I was excited about the interesting find I had just made.

Pisanello, The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony the Abbot and George, c. 1435-41.

The small painting is one of the very few from Antonio Pisanello’s hand that survives to this day. Dated circa 1435-41, it represents the Virgin with Child above two men: a young knight in armor and a bearded saint. What struck me in London was the extraordinary resemblance between the bearded saint and the Tarot of Marseille’s Hermit, a resemblance that is easier to grasp when one of the two images is reversed (in this case, Pisanello’s saint).

Comparison of Pisanello’s St. Anthony (left, reversed) with the Tarot of Marseille’s Hermit (right).

Both men are represented in three-quarter view, looking in the distance. Both are aged, bearded, long-haired, and wearing a large hooded cloak on top of a simple robe. With one hand, each is holding an object — a small bell for the saint, a lamp for the Hermit — revealing the inside of their coats under their raised arms. In the other hand, each is holding a staff, but in the Pisanello work, the staff is held in such a way that it forms a fold under the saint’s arm. In the Hermit, the staff is held vertically; however, the fold remains, although its existence is no longer justified. From this observation, we can infer that the Hermit probably was derived from Pisanello’s saint. The card’s designer, for some reason, decided to modify the position of the staff for his rendition, but did not bother to take out the fold caused by the original horizontal position.

The painting inspired other artworks in the last third of the 15th century, like this miniature, probably from Milan, dated circa 1470 and representing the Holy Family.

Anonymous, The Holy Family, c. 1470.

Here, it cannot be a mere coincidence that the figure of the man exhibits so many characteristics of Pisanello’s bearded saint. Could the tarot card have been inspired by this St. Joseph rather than Pisanello’s St. Anthony? The visual comparison, in itself, does not provide the answer. However, a clue of another nature might allow us to decide. We need to consider the characters’ identities. Pisanello’s saint is holding a bell, and a boar is lying on his side. In Christian iconography, the bell and the pig are the traditional attributes of St. Anthony the Abbot, who lived an ascetic life in the desert and became the model and patron saint of hermits. The old man in the card, thus, is not only similar visually to Pisanello’s saint. The name of the card reveals that he shares another remarkable feature with the saint: his eremitic vocation. Therefore, in all probability, Pisanello’s saint – rather than Joseph – is the model for the Hermit.

However, while retaining from Pisanello’s model the appearance and eremitic status, the author of the Tarot of Marseille nevertheless discarded other significant attributes: He retained neither the halo, bell, nor boar. Thus, the old man loses his holiness (symbolized by the halo) and his identity as St. Anthony (signified by the bell and boar). What’s more, in his hand, the bell was replaced by the lamp, an object that never was one of the saint’s traditional attributes. How can we interpret this substitution? If he is not St. Anthony, then who is the Hermit?

To be continued in part two.

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