One of the 22 trump cards in the Tarot of Marseille has caused uneasiness in many people. Some call it “Death,” but as the card bears no name, others consider it unnameable. The image, however, seems unambiguous to the point of discouraging any investigation — Death, the Grim Reaper, the one who takes you from the living to the dead realm. Could it be just that simple? Could one of the trump cards be so devoid of mystery?

Nicolas Conver, Arcana 13, 1760

The term arcana often is used in esoteric circles to refer to tarot trump cards. It is derived from the Latin word arcanum, meaning “mystery.” In this episode, I have named the 13th trump card in the Tarot of Marseille Arcana 13. However, the first tarot cards, at the beginning of the 15th century, were named differently. In recently discovered archive documents, they are usually called “triumphs” (Trionfi in Italian).[1] We might never know for certain where this term comes from, but one of the leads is worth mentioning. Florentine humanist Petrarch uses the term as the title of one of his most famous poems in the second half of the 14th century. In this work, the word “triumph” refers to the Roman tradition of holding a processional parade upon the return of a victorious general to the Capitol in Rome. Petrarch’s poem narrates a dream by the author, who, having fallen asleep on grass, dreamt of a triumphal chariot led by Love and followed by those who had been vanquished by it. After its triumph, Love succumbs in its turn and finds itself tied up behind the chariot of Pudicity, which submits it. Then Pudicity gives way to Death, which is surpassed by Glory, which yields to Time, and Time ends with the final triumph of Eternity.

The poem thus features a hierarchy of triumphs, from the lowest to the highest. Likewise, in the game of tarot, each trump card bears a number, from 1 to 21, and the greater prevails over the smaller. Therefore, it is probably by analogy with Petrarch’s Triumphs that the trump cards of the Tarot of Marseille were called triumphs in the 15th century. At that time, this poem was very popular and numerous copies of it were produced, as manuscripts or as printed editions. Often, these books were illustrated with miniatures or engravings, more or less faithful to a model that formed gradually. Among these images, those representing the Triumph of Death most likely inspired Arcana 13 in the Tarot of Marseille.

Good examples are provided in a full-page miniature painted in 1457 by the Florentine Francesco d’Antonio Del Chierico, [2] and by an engraving attributed to the Master of the Vienna Passion, produced in Florence circa 1465-1470.

Francesco d’Antonio del Chierico, The Triumph of Death, 1457 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris)

Master of the Vienna Passion (Attr.), The Triumph of Death, c. 1465-70 (Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienne).

In both cases, we can observe several typical details that clearly reappear in Arcana 13: 1) The main figure is a scrawny skeleton; 2) this character is holding a scythe; and 3) the ground is scattered with human bodies, some of which are wearing a crown or a tiara. It is all the more striking that two of these details contradict Petrarch’s verses. In the poem, Death is not described as a skeleton, but as a “lady dressed in black,”[3] and is not armed with a scythe, but with a “sword, which pierces and cuts.”[4] As it appears, the iconography of Petrarch’s Triumph of Death was influenced by two other popular traditions at the end of the Middle Ages. The first is the artistic genre known as “Dance of Death,” which spread throughout Europe, inspired by the Danse Macabre fresco that decorated one of the walls of the Holy Innocents’ cemetery in Paris in 1424. The original painting was destroyed, but wood engravings published in 1484 provide a good idea of what it looked like.

Pierre le Rouge (Attr.), Danse Macabre, 2nd edition, 1486 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris).

It featured skeletons with characters representing various social types of that time. The scythe, for its part, was inherited from the astrological image of Saturn, which often was represented with a scythe in the Middle Ages. The slowest planet generally was associated with old age and death. The scythe is emblematic of its power of destruction. The ground, scattered with corpses, on the other hand, faithfully illustrates these verses from the Triumph of Death:

Millions of dead heap’d on th’ adjacent plain;
No verse nor prose may comprehend the slain
Did on Death’s triumph wait, from India,
From Spain, and from Morocco, from Cathay,
And all the skirts of th’ earth they gather’d were;
Who had most happy lived, attended there:
Popes, Emperors, nor Kings, no ensigns wore
Of their past height, but naked show’d and poor.
Where be their riches, where their precious gems,
Their mitres, sceptres, robes, and diadems?[5]

The message is clear: No one escapes death, and neither the rich nor mighty can run away from their fates. A famous tarot card from the so-called Tarot of Charles VI – one that does not belong to the Tarot of Marseille tradition – also presents the three characteristics observed in the illustrations of Petrarch’s Triumphs: skeleton, scythe, and bodies lying on the ground.

Anonymous, Death, card from the Tarot of Charles VI, end of the 15th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris).

At that point, one could conclude that everything is said: Arcana 13 of the Tarot of Marseille would be just another image inspired, like many others, by the famous medieval poem. This would be no surprise, as the deck was conceived in Florence, the hometown of Petrarch. However, our card has characteristics that do not belong to the traditional iconography of the Triumph of Death: 1) The human bodies on the ground are dismembered, and 2) the skeleton’s pink-colored figure contains a subsection composed of red and light-blue elements.

This internal structure looks strangely like a red bulb whose roots have pushed into the skeleton’s pelvis, with a stem growing out of it, merging with the skeleton’s backbone, then blossoming as a four-petal flower at neck level.

Nicolas Conver, Arcana 13, 1760 (internal plant highlighted)

A correct understanding of the card needs to take such obviously meaningful details into account. However, Petrarch’s Triumphs provides no other clues. I had to look for them somewhere else.

To be continued in part two.

[1] See Thierry Depaulis, Le Tarot révélé. Une histoire du tarot d’après les documents, Freibourg-in-Breisgau, Musée Suisse du Jeu, 2013, p. 15-19 et 29-30.

[2] Now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscrit Italien 545, folio 30v.

[3] Triumph of Death, I, 31 : « una donna involta in vesta negra ».

[4] Triumph of Death, I, 42 : « la mia spada, la qual punge e seca ».

[5] Triumph of Death, I, 73-84. Translation by Hugh Boyd.

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