During the first phase of my research, when I focused on the costumes of the figures in the Tarot of Marseille cards, the clothing of the figure of Strength had intrigued me, particularly her blue skirt, which has a rigid aspect that seemed strange for something made of cloth. I suddenly recalled this detail one day in the early 2000s, as I was reading Plato’s Republic.


Strength: A comparison between the Cary-Yale tarot card (left, the image has been reversed to facilitate comparisons) and that of the Tarot of Marseille (right).

A woman overpowers a lion with her bare hands — such is the image that seems to represent the 11th trump card in the Tarot of Marseille, Strength. Graphically, this figure is derived from one of the early illuminated Milanese tarot decks of the 15th century, the so-called Cary-Yale tarot, which I already mentioned in chapter 15. Some striking similarities appear when one of the images is reversed: 1) The general composition; 2) The way the partially turned head of the feminine character contrasts with that of the animal, in side view; 3) The particular design of the woman’s dress, forming a slit from which her arm emerges, and which leaves a piece of cloth floating behind her; 4) The angle formed by her elbow, identical in both images; 5) The animal’s eye, drawn in the same way, almond-shaped, with long, curved eyelashes, the black pupil placed in the inner corner, looking up.

However, even if the Tarot of Marseille’s Strength inherited these forms from the Milanese deck, the former figure conveys a different meaning, as it also contains other features, which are foreign to the traditional lion-and-woman image. This allegory was not unusual during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Strength, or Courage, was, since Greek Antiquity, one of the four Cardinal Virtues, along with Prudence (or Wisdom), Justice, and Temperance. It is frequently represented in the form of a woman subduing a lion.

Strength, a 12th century mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.

Strength, a book illumination from the 14th century (Biblioteca Ambrogiana, Milan)

Giovanni Pisano’s Strength, 1301-1310.

Examples abound, such as a 12th century mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice or an illumination in a 14th century judicial treatise. In Pisa, at the beginning of the 14th century, Giovanni Pisano sculpted it on the cathedral’s pulpit, with the figure holding the dead lion by its paw.

The image evokes the initiatory victories won with bare hands by two ancient heroes over lions: Hercules, from Greek mythology, and young Samson, from the Bible.

Apparently, the 11th trump card of the Tarot of Marseille is a supplementary illustration of this pattern. Let us, however, go back over the comparison with the Cary-Yale card, this time highlighting the differences rather than the similarities: 1) At the bottom of the dress, the tip of something sticks out. In the Cary-Yale tarot, it is the lion’s tail and paw, whereas in the Tarot of Marseille, it is the woman’s foot, wearing a sandal. We can infer from these observations that in the first image, the woman’s feet do not touch the ground, as she is seated on the animal’s back. This is confirmed by the shape of the cloth, suggesting that the woman is riding the beast. However, in the second image, from the position of her foot on the ground, the woman must be standing. 2) The dress was deeply modified, even if the characteristic slit, through which the arm passes, remains. In fact, instead of the gown, open on the sides, worn by the Cary-Yale woman, the Tarot of Marseille figure wears a cape above what seems to be a gown closed on the chest with lacing. 3) The animal in the Tarot of Marseille does not resemble a lion as much, while the Cary-Yale beast seems rather natural.

Such differences could be ascribed to the clumsiness of the engraver who was inspired by the Cary-Yale card. However, if this really had been the case, why didn’t he content himself with simply copying, be it awkwardly, the model he had before him, rather than going into hazardous innovation? In reality, the modifications introduced by the engraver are easily explained if we consider them in light of Plato’s writings. There, indeed, the four Cardinal Virtues appear for the first time as a coherent ensemble. In Book 4 of the Republic, Plato provides a systematic description of them, as relevant to the State.[1] They are the qualities that demonstrate good organization of the State, which is wise if its governing part, the guardians, possesses this quality. Likewise, it will have force if its warriors are courageous. The State will be tempered insomuch as the best part of the city reigns over the lesser one and thus allows concord between the governors and the governed. Finally, the State will have Justice if every part of the State takes care of its own duty without interfering with that of others. Plato then transposes these qualities with regard to the individual soul. Just as there are classes in the population of the State, there are parts in individual souls: reason, force, and desire, respectively corresponding to the governing class, the warriors, and the cultivators and artisans. The Virtues in the soul result from the correct organization of the parties. There is Wisdom when reason reigns over the other parties, and Strength when force concords with reason to dominate desire. Temperance is in the soul when there is harmony among all parties. Justice reigns when every part of the soul plays its role without encroaching upon that of the others.[2]

Plato goes back to the parts of the soul in the 9th book of the Republic, where Socrates provides a description of an image of the human soul:

A symbolic image of the soul […], one of those natures that the ancient fables tell of, as that of the Chimera or Scylla, or Cerberus, and the numerous other examples that are told of many forms grown together in one.[3]

Then he depicts this chimera as a composition of three entities:

Mould, then, 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 […] Then fashion one other form of a lion and one of a man […] Join the three in one, then, so as in some sort to grow together.[4]

Then he proposes to give to the whole a human aspect:

Then mould about them outside the likeness of one, that of the man, so that anyone who is unable to look within but who can see only the outer covering [5] it appears to be one living creature, the man. [6]

Socrates’ chimera is an illustration of Plato’s conception of the parts of the soul. The interior man represents reason, the lion is the force of feeling, and the multi-headed beast, which looks like Hydra, is the multiplicity of desire. The outer covering masks the complexity of the composition, showing a unique person in what really forms a swarm of contradictions. The soul is virtuous when these parts are in harmony, but vicious when they are not.

We are looking at the 11th trump card of the Tarot of Marseille as those who see only the outer covering of Socrates’ chimera. To access its internal forms, we need to dissect the assembly. Let us first suppress the covering. As we saw previously, the woman’s dress in the Tarot of Marseille card was modified with respect to its Milanese model. A strange visual effect results from that modification, especially in the lower part of the dress.

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

There is a piece that does not seem to be made of cloth, as there is no movement of drapery, but there is stiffness in the lines and an emphasized thickness in the material: It seems to be made of wood. Moreover, it cannot, as it is represented, serve as the woman’s dress. Indeed, it rides up as a funnel to form, to the top, a narrow strip, quite insufficient to hug the character’s waist. Thus, this block-element is an illusory piece of clothing. However, it has all the characteristics of some sort of a covering, or lid. What should we expect to find behind it? Probably that which Socrates had hidden under his beast’s covering. We should be reminded that the Tarot of Marseille’s Strength differs from the Cary-Yale card in that the former is standing while the latter is sitting on the lion’s back. In that standing position, her legs can only be slightly parted, which would not leave enough room for the lion’s body. If the woman’s legs are under her dress, where are the lion’s hindquarters? The image appears to be incoherent, unless we consider that it might be a representation of a chimera. When studying the figure of a centaur, one does not look for the legs of the man between those of the horse. In the Tarot of Marseille’s Strength, there is not, under the dress, a lion and a woman, but a hybrid form resulting from the combination of a woman and a lion.

To be continued in part two.

[1] Plato, Republic, 427e-434c: wisdom (428b), bravery (429a), temperance, justice (430d).

[2] Plato, Republic, 435b-443d.

[3] Plato, Republic, 588c (transl. Paul Shorey)..

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

[5] Operimentum, in Ficino’s Latin translation, that is a covering, or lid.

[6] Plato, Republic, 588d (transl. Paul Shorey, slightly modified).

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