21 – IN SEARCH OF THE THIRD EYE – PART 3

Continued from part two.

The reader arriving at this point in the text might be asking whether the author is really serious, as the few lines traced on the Hermit’s forehead seem more likely to reflect his old age or his worries than any supernumerary organ of vision. I must admit I spent some time examining with great care each and every ancient Hermit card, hoping to find one in which these lines would more clearly indicate the presence of the third eye of the Ideas. It seemed to be in vain. With much regret, I was about to abandon this hypothesis. Then, on May 1, 2011, I went to an antique book fair at the Grand Palais in Paris. At the turn of an alley, my attention was attracted by a deck of cards displayed by an Italian bookseller. It was not a Tarot of Marseille, but it looked very much like one. It was the first time I had come across a Piedmontese tarot, signed by Cesare Riva from Vercelli, dated circa 1840. Struck by the resemblance of its trump figures with those of the Tarot of Marseille, I bought the deck. Only after I arrived home and closely examined the cards did I discover what I had been seeking for such a long time. There it was, on the Hermit’s forehead, right in the center, a small, round shape prolonged by four wrinkles: the eye of the Ideas.

Cesare Riva, The Hermit, c. 1841-1847

Cesare Riva, The Hermit, c. 1841-1847 (detail of the eye of the Ideas)

Why does the third eye appear so clearly in this Piedmontese deck, yet it can only be conjectured in the Tarot of Marseille? Obviously, the Marseille and Piedmont traditions of the tarot both are derived from a common ancestor. A comparison of the two Hermits, for example, clearly reveals that the content is almost the same, while the graphical interpretation is quite different. Both characters are bearded, with long hair, holding a staff in the left hand, a lamp in the other hand, wearing a cloak. However, the lamp of the Piedmontese Eremita, while taking the same model as the Tarot of Marseille’s Hermit, brightens it up with a candle and luminous rays. It seems most unlikely that the Hermit is derived from the Eremita, as we have seen that the fold of the cloak under the Hermit’s arm is derived from Pisanello’s painting (see episode 20). The Eremita’s wide sleeves do not allow for the presence of a fold. The presence of an eye in the Eremita’s forefront, on the other hand, tends to show that he is not derived from the Hermit as we know him, but from an original model common to both, which was interpreted differently. In the Marseille tradition, the frontal eye faded away, while the Piedmontese deck maintained it.

As the original Marseille Hermit probably had a frontal eye, even if it is not very obvious in the known cards, this means that the lamp man possesses the capability to see the Ideas. Thus, he is probably not Diogenes, who made fun of Ideas, but might be Euclid of Megara from Ficino’s story (see part 2). From there on, the meaning of the card can be deduced from the story. The man is a philosopher endowed with the third eye, with which he contemplates the Ideas. In his right hand is the lamp of imagination, which helps him to conceive projects according to the contemplated ideas. The staff he is holding in his left hand might indicate that he must exercise caution if he wants to reach his objective without any problems.

To thoroughly understand the meaning of this image, one must grasp Ficino’s Platonic conception of the universe. For him, the world as we perceive it is just an imperfect image of another world, this one perfect: the world of Ideas. All the things we can see, feel, smell, taste, and hear are necessarily produced from a pre-existing ideal model. The movements of celestial bodies in the sky are imagined by the souls of the planets from ideal models existing in the world of ideas. Likewise, the beauty in life is produced in nature from ideal matrixes. Similarly, all human creations must be imagined by humans, who can only copy as best they can the Ideas inscribed forever in the divine heaven of Ideas. That is what the Hermit is striving to do, walking cautiously, step by step, through the uninterrupted flow of the ongoing universe, to give, through the power of his imagination, a perceptible presence to what would have remained, without his intervention, a remote ideal.

On September 1, 2015, as I was having lunch with my friend Yves Reynaud, who was passing through Paris, I told him about my observations on the Hermit. Yves is a living encyclopedia of the Tarot of Marseille.[1]  He confessed to having asked himself the question about the wrinkles on the old man’s forehead when contemplating the Hermit of the tarot produced by Bernardin Suzanne (1839), which I had never seen. Do these perfectly round wrinkles on the man’s forehead not look like a third eye on top of the other two?

Bernardin Suzanne, The Hermit, 1839.

[1] Yves Reynaud publishes excellent facsimile editions of historical Tarots of Marseille. See his website : http://tarot-de-marseille-heritage.com/english

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