26 – THE AMBIGUOUS GOD – PART 2

Continued from part 1.

In January 2003, as I was visiting the Galleria Estense in Modena, I was struck by a relief exhibited on a wall. On the rectangular stone, a human shape was sculpted within an oval, which was surrounded, at the four corners of the stone, by human heads in profile. The work I had before me was extraordinarily similar, by its composition, to the figure of the Tarot of Marseille’s World card. Was there a link between these images, separated by more than 12 centuries?

Relief representing Aion/Phanes in Modena at the Galleria Museo e Medagliere Estense, inv. 2676.

The Modena relief dates from the second quarter of the second century AD. [1]  Its composition is strikingly similar to that of the Christian Tetramorph: At the four corners, instead of four living creatures, there are four men’s faces. Within this frame, an oval belt decorated with symbols plays the role of the mandorla. In the middle, a human figure replaces Christ. This sculpture probably had a votive function in the context of the Mithraic cult.[2] Although there is nothing Christian in it, this image presents several elements that resemble some parts of the Christian Tetramorph. The four faces in the corners represent the cardinal winds, thereby echoing the living creatures as images of the cardinal points. The oval strip decorated with symbols is an image of the zodiac, the 12 signs that can be easily identified. Finally, the central figure has, like Christ, a divine nature. Moreover, this figure stands naked, just like the mysterious character in the World card, holding a stick reminiscent of the World’s wand or scepter, standing just like him on a support at the bottom of the oval shape.

Could it be that the creator of the Tarot of Marseille composed this card as he did with several others: by combining two different iconographic traditions in a single image? (e.g., Strength, Episode 18; The Hermit, Episodes 20 and 21; The Tower, Episode 22; and Arcana 13, Episode 23).

As shown by Franz Cumont, the divinity on the relief exhibits some features corresponding to the Mithraic god Aion, while other features belong to the Orphic god Phanes, and even some to Zeus. [3]  The sculpture stages the birth of Phanes at the moment when he emerges from the primordial egg – that Chronos/Aion had created in the ether, letting light shine into the world.

A beautiful young man is standing between two parts of an egg, whose shell he just broke open and from which gush flames, images of the fires with which Phanes illuminated the universe. According to the theogony, the upper half, above his head, represents the sky; the other, on which rest his feet, is earth. From his shoulders, long wings grow, which express the quickness with which he sheds light onto the world. Above his shoulders, the tips of the lunar crescent appear, while his juvenile face, adorned with long curly hairs, reminds of the traditional figure of Helios [assimilated with Phanes]. The moon here seems to allude to the original Night, which covered everything with darkness and which was suddenly illuminated by Phanes’ radiance.[4]

However, some characteristics of the figure also relate it to the god Aion. Cumont highlights them, while showing the analogies between the two gods. The snake that coils around the young man’s body “is an obvious imitation of the Mithraic statues of Time or Aion, around which wraps a dragon, symbol of the sinuous course of the sun through the constellations of the ecliptic.” [5]

Finally, the attributes held by the character, the thunderbolt in the right hand and the scepter in the other, are the emblems of Zeus, and Cumont reminds us that the Orphic doctrine identified Phanes with him.[6]

Who was this god Phanes of the Orphics? Sometimes also called Protogonos, he was, in the Orphic cosmogony, the god of procreation and of the origin of life.[7] At the beginning of the world, he emerges from a cosmic egg laid by Chronos, then lights up the world. As a creative power and first engendered god, he often was assimilated with Eros. First and only principle, he was a hermaphrodite, generating everything from himself.[8] The Platonic author Proclus (421-485 AD) quotes Orpheus (whom he calls the Theologist) to attribute both male and female genders to Phanes:

That is why the Theologist […] ascribes to him [Phanes] primarily the female and the male, as to the first animal: “Female and father, strong and mighty god, Ericapaeus,” the Theologist says. [9]

Proclus sees in him the demiurge creator of the world[10], the Animal itself[11], the one who makes the world a visible animal[12], and identifies him with Zeus.[13] Moreover, he attributes him the scepter:

What then are the Orphic traditions, since we are of opinion that the doctrine of Timaeus about the Gods should be referred to these? They are as follow: Orpheus delivered the kingdoms of the Gods who preside over wholes, according to a perfect number, viz. Phanes, Night, Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus, Dionysus. For Phanes is the first that bears a scepter. [14]

The central figure of the World card corresponds closely to the Orphic Phanes. The character appears in the middle of an egg-shaped mandorla, naked just like Phanes emerging from the primordial egg. Like the Orphic god, he brandishes a scepter and is both female and male. Surrounded by the four living creatures of the Christian Tetramorph, he appears as the first living creature.

Thus, the image on the card seems to operate as a synthesis between the Christian Tetramorph and the Orphic Phanes of the relief. As daring as it may seem, the comparison between these two representations very remote from each other is based on real graphic and theological correspondences. Both figures refer to a divinity as the creator of the universe and origin of life. Both figures also refer to the zodiac as an image of time and to the cardinal points as an image of the universe.

The World card (center) compared with a 12th century Christian Tetramorph (left) and the Modena relief (right).

Has the Modena relief inspired, in conjunction with the Christian Tetramorph, the figure of the World in the Tarot of Marseille? The sculpture is not a recent archeological find. Rediscovered in 1862 in the collections of the Este family, it probably had been there for several centuries. [15] Nothing forbids conjecturing that the creator of the Tarot of Marseille, or one of the artists or artisans who contributed to the making of the deck, may have contemplated it among the treasures of an Italian collector of the Renaissance, and drawn inspiration from it.

At that time, who could envision such a synthesis?

Inevitably, concerning the merger of ancient theologies and Christian doctrine during the early Italian Renaissance, the name Marsilio Ficino comes to mind.

To be continued in part 3.

[1] Nicoletta Giordani, Rilievo con Aion/Phanes entro Zodiaco in Mario Scalini, Nicoletta Giordani (eds.) Renaissance Privée. Aspects insolites du collectionnisme dans la famille d’Este, de Dosso Dossi à Brueghel, Milano, Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 49-50.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Franz Cumont, « Mithra et l’Orphisme », Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 109 (1934), pp. 63-72.

[4] Ibidem, pp. 67-68.

[5] Ibidem, p. 68.

[6] Ibid., p. 69.

[7] William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement, Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 80.

[8] On Phanes’ hermaphroditism, see Luc Brisson, Le sexe incertain. Androgynie et hermaphroditisme dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine, Paris, Les Belles-Lettres, 2008, pp. 78-92.

[9] Proclus, Commentaire sur le Timée. Volume II, book 2, translation by A. J. Festugière, Paris, Vrin, 1967, p. 307 (429.27-30 Diehl). See also Ibidem, p. 332 (450.22-24 Diehl). Ericapaeus is another name of Phanes.

[10] Ibidem, p. 161 (306.14 Diehl) ; p. 195 (336.6-9 Diehl) ; p. 196 (336.21-23 Diehl), p. 308 (430.1-10 Diehl).

[11] Ibid., pp. 305-306 (427.22-428.21 Diehl)

[12] Ibid., p. 313 (434.29-435.5)

[13] Ibid., p. 332 (450.27-451.16)

[14] Proclus, Commentaire sur le Timée. Volume V, book 5, translation by A. J. Festugière, Paris, Vrin, 1968, p. 25 (168.15-21 Diehl).

[15] Nicoletta Giordani, Rilievo con Aion/Phanes, cit., p. 50.

To be informed when new episodes are published, subscribe to the ‘Villa Stendhal’ Facebook page (go to www.facebook.com/VillaStendhal then click on the ‘Follow’ button).