5 – THE CHARIOT DECIPHERED – PART 2

Continued from part one.

 

7) The Chariot. In the Phaedrus, just before he described the chariot, Plato defined the soul as the principle of movement.[1] In his commentary, Ficino draws on this to affirm that Plato chose the image of the chariot as a representation of the soul precisely because of movement. However, in his interpretation, the soul does not animate itself in a direct way, as a regular horse-driven carriage would. It implies, rather, different complex motions comparable to those of a sophisticated hydraulic system. Indeed, Ficino describes the internal movements of the soul as channels through which information circulates, from one degree of reality to the other.[2] There are four of them, which he names “circuits” or “cycles.” They are the functions of the soul with which it links together the different levels of reality (or worlds). The first circuit, that of the intellect, is the fastest. It links the intellect to the intelligible world of principles and ideas. Ficino compares it to the permanent movement of the firmament and of the whole celestial machine, that of fixed stars in the heavens, regular and continuous. The second circuit, immediately following the first, is that of reason, a slower circuit. Ficino compares it to the movement of the planets in the sky, more erratic than that of the fixed stars. In another of his writings, the Florentine provides an explanation of these comparisons between heavenly cycles and cognitive processes.[3] The circuit of reason is similar to the erratic movement of the wandering planets because it must go back and forth between the object considered and its ideal model in the intelligible world. On the other hand, the circuit of intellect links the soul to the object considered without any intermediary, directly within the intellectual world. This is like an immediate comprehension that does not need reasoning. The circuit called reason, by contrast, supposes a logical progression that relies on a comparison between the phenomenon and its cause. For example, the intellect would directly contemplate the idea of justice, while reason would compare a given situation to the idea of justice to decide whether the situation is just or not.

The specific elements of the first two cognitive circuits described by Ficino can be observed in the half of the card situated at the right-hand side of the charioteer, corresponding to the world of being. The face on the right shoulder plate, as we have seen, represents the rational power of the soul, turned toward the eternal realities. Under its eyes, there is the charioteer’s scepter, whose top end presents circular objects: One is marked by a crescent, while the lowest has a black dot in its center. These are the traditional astrological symbols of two of the celestial bodies: the moon and the sun. Between the two is a larger sphere, probably Earth, in accordance with the cosmological representations of that time. (Earth was thought to be at the center of the universe.) This schema is reminiscent of the analogy in Ficino’s Phaedrus commentary between the first two cognitive circuits and the heavenly movements. Beyond the scepter, at the top of the card, the face can contemplate the canopy directly, an image of the heaven of Ideas, comparable to the firmament of fixed stars. This illustrates the first, and fastest,  circuit, that of intellect (No. 1 on the schema). On the other hand, if the face lowers its eyes, it will see the canopy behind the spheres of the scepter, as if making a comparison between them and the fixed stars of the firmament behind them. This illustrates the second circuit, that of reason (No. 2 on the schema).

 

The rational cognitive circuits (1 and 2) in the Chariot card.

The rational cognitive circuits (1 and 2) in the Chariot card.

 

In Ficino’s commentary on the Phaedrus, the third and fourth circuits are those, respectively, of imagination and nature. Both are located on the other half of the card, on the left-hand side of the charioteer, and they represent non-being. Imagination and nature indeed relate to non-existent things — the imaginary and generation, respectively. On the card, the pivotal point for these two circuits seems to be the face on the left shoulder plate of the charioteer. Ficino explains that “the imagination’s period is like the sub-celestial revolution of the ether.” Ether, in Platonic cosmology, is a bright type of air that occupies the region of the sky between the air and the fiery region of fixed stars. Ficino’s reference to its “revolution”  probably was inspired by Plato’s words in the Cratylus: “As for ether, I’d explain it as follows: It is always right to call it ether because it is always running and flowing about the air.”[4] In any case, Ficino distinguishes between two different superior environments: the highest, the ordered heaven of the stars, where intellect reigns, and the sub-celestial — the turbulent, ethereal layer — where imagination reigns. On the card, the canopy, likewise, is clearly divided into two layers: a yellow upper one and a blue lower one. The mask on the left shoulder plate of the charioteer is turned toward the canopy’s veil, but on the side of non-being. We can suppose it represents imagination producing ephemeral images from the contemplation of the ever-changing movements of the ethereal layer (circuit 3).

The fourth circuit, of nature, is the one by which sensory perceptions, provided by bodily senses, are transmitted to the higher functions of the soul. Ficino explains: “(…) but the nature’s period is like the revolution of air and water.”[5] He is referring to the cycle according to which water, transformed into vapor by the sun, ascends to the sky, then condenses and falls to the earth as rain. Likewise, the soul converts corporeal perceptions into immaterial images, and conversely, condenses immaterial ideas into physical impressions. According to Ficino, the images produced by imagination are projected onto an internal screen made of finely vaporized blood. These transformation processes are illustrated in a particularly astute way on the Chariot card. The charioteer’s armor presents a surprising aspect. A thorough examination of the skirt that emerges behind the vehicle’s rim reveals that it has a curved shape.

The strange armor of the Charioteer

The strange armor of the Charioteer

 

It thus appears that the charioteer’s body is composed of two superimposed rounded volumes, the lower one pear-shaped, while the top one is clearly egg-shaped. The motifs used to decorate  them look like reinforcing straps and rivets, giving the impression that they are made of metal. The combined shape, if we disregard the right arm and the head of the charioteer, is strikingly evocative of a traditional instrument of alchemy used in Ficino’s time: the pelican. This device was made of two superimposed bodies, communicating both directly and through side arms. A liquid was introduced into the lower vessel, which was heated, then the liquid evaporated and rose into the higher part. The vapors then condensed and returned through the arms into the lower part. Just like that, the pelican processed the liquid in a perpetual evaporation-condensation process, just as nature does with water.

An alchemical pelican after a Renaissance engraving

An alchemical pelican after a Renaissance engraving

 

In the Chariot card, the left arm of the charioteer links the egg-shaped upper part of the armor to the inferior volume. The resulting image is cleverly illustrative of the “revolution of water and air” evoked by Ficino in his commentary (circuit 4). It is well known that Ficino was familiar with alchemy, even though he does not seem to have practiced it himself.[6]

 

The irrational cognitive circuits (3 and 4) in the Chariot card.

The irrational cognitive circuits (3 and 4) in the Chariot card.

 

One obvious detail of the Chariot card remains to explore: What is the meaning of the letters V.T. inscribed on the coat of arms that decorates the vehicle’s body? In the 18th century, this place in the card was often used by the engraver to put his initials as a signature. For example, the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, dated 1709, bears his initials, P.M., in this place. In the case of the Tarot of Nicolas Conver, these initials should have been N.C. Maybe another master carved the woodblock. However, historians were not able to identify any card maker whose initials were V.T. In reality, the Tarot of Nicolas Conver, being the one whose design has the most striking similarities with its Renaissance sources of inspiration, is probably the most faithful to the original model, in which these initials probably had a philosophical meaning. In a passage of his Theologia Platonica, Ficino evokes two types of vehicles of the soul: a fiery one, that of the ascent to God, with which Elias and St. Paul had been enraptured to heaven, and the other material and terrestrial.[7] This terrestrial vehicle, in Latin Vehiculum Terrenum, is the residence of the human soul before physical death. In the Chariot card, the flesh-colored vehicle’s body, marked with the initials V.T. and placed in the lower half of the composition, probably represents this physical vehicle.

 

The coat of arms on the Chariot’s body.

The coat of arms on the Chariot’s body.

[1] Phaedrus, 245d-246a.

[2] Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, cit., p. 71. English translation M. J. B. Allen slightly modified.

[3] In an annotation to the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Cf. Marsilio Ficino, Opera omnia, Basel, Henricpetri, 1576; repr. Paris, Phénix, 2000, p. 1063 (erroneously paginated 1036).

[4] Cratylus, 410b. English translation: C.D.C. Reeve.

[5] Ficino, Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1. Phaedrus and Ion, cit., p. 71. English translation M. J. B. Allen.

[6] See Sylvain Matton, Marsile Ficin et l’alchimie, in Jean-Claude Margolin et Sylvain Matton (eds), Alchimie et philosophie à la Renaissance, Paris, Vrin, 1993, p. 123-192, and more recently, Peter Forshaw, Marsilio Ficino and the Chemical Art, in Stephen Clucas, Peter J. Forshaw and Valery Rees, Laus Platonici Philosophi, Leiden, Brill, 2011, p. 249-271.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, cit., XIII, IV, 16, volume 4, p. 206-207.

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