Tarot and Black Death


Since the recent attack has erased this thread installed after 06-15, I now reopen this discussion again, hoping that what was said on the 14 Nothelfer by roppo and jmd will be reposted again…and, of course, any other discussion wanted…

I was suggesting the hypothesis that the Tarot-imaginary leads us (back) to the Black Death as one of its possible origins regarding the iconography of the Tarot-trumps and told in their series as a reminder or an underlying story.

In realizing that the Tarot-image of Death is probably one of the least old regarding its iconographic representation, the question arises where it was taken from and to what end death was depicted this way: as a skeleton or often as a decomposing human body. Obviously (which can be followed up by looking at the iconographic analysis of Bob O’Neill (at tarot.com), it cannot be found before about 1360. However, from there on, it grows to omnipresence and also found its way into the early Tarot, especially the 14 trumps of the Bembo-deck (considering it as one of the oldest true Tarots).

Searching for a background, one reason (and surely not an unimportant one) seems to be evident in its immediat presence for these Death-depictions: the Black Death. Incidentally, it came to Europe from the East through Sicily and raged all over Northern Italy and in the whole of Europe between 1346-52 right at the time Death-depictions as in the Death card began. From about 100 million people living in the West at that time Black Death took away at least a third of the population (!) – in some areas even more. No wonder that in “art” Death appeared as an omnipresent Black Death from there on… Every 10 to 12 years was a year of pestilence within the next centuries… It was, indeed, all-present a force.

Coincidently, taking into consideration another note in the thread "Le Mat", roppa has put forward the thesis that the Fool resembles St. Roch, one of the 14 Nothelfer, often depicted with a “sign of the pestilence” – the torn down hose on one leg – and followed by a dog, being a child of the times of the pestilence, it strikes me as a possible origin of the Tarot-imaginary to be somehow deeply related to one of the major forces of the 14th and 15th century: the Black Death.

Scanning the other trumps – and we are talking of the very early trumps of the 15th century – regarding this theme, many relations to the Black Death pop up immediately: the relation of at least the Emperor and the Pope to the Dance macabre tradition, saying that all, even the leaders, the rich and the mighty, will be under the command of Death, especially under the heavily felt all-presence of the Black Death. This tradition in turn is again related to confraternities in Italy that saw their mission in helping the dying and burying the dead, especially in times of the pestilence. There are depictions of the Death taking away the weapon of the Cupid, arrow and dart, to misuse it as instrument of death. There might be relations to the Wheel, which was known since the early middle ages, but was used a sign of unpredictability of life and death especially at the times of the pestilence – as O’Neill notes in his analysis.

This possible intimate relationship between the origin of the Tarot imaginary and the Black Death might be strengthened when we take into consideration how it might have influenced one of the first extant decks: the Bembo-cards. We note that six cards were painted from another hand and probably later (Strength, Temperance, Star, Moon, Sun, World), two are missing (Devil, Tower). So let’s consider the remaining, allegedly “original” 14 cards and their structure. (In the meantime, I have brought this argument in a more systematic order in the thread on "XXI - Le Monde").

1. The series begins with the Fool: St. Roch or another Fool in times of the pestilence – I have referred to one very famous pestilence-fool known in Vienna from these times in the thread on "Le Mat": the “happy Augustin”.

2. The series ends with Death and Judgment. Hence, Death is the penultimate aim of the series, not somehow the middle of a mystic journey, but at the end of a real devastating journey of many at that time; it is very visible and immediately understandable. Given the interpretations of the time why this pestilence was haunting so crudely, the first answer (not only propagandized by the pope but held by many people) was a religious one: sin and punishment! So what is more evident as having the Great Judgment next to Death as ultimate aim of the whole experience of social and personal disaster through pestilence? (Whether there was a Devil and a Tower is not important here because depictions of the time often show Death accompanied by Hell’s Mouth and also by crumbling Towers).

3. All virtues are absent except one: Justice. We know of the Dummett B order (Ferrara/Venice) that it has not used Justice as a virtue but as the Eschatological Event of Justice by elevating it to the penultimate position following Judgment (Angel). So it is not impossible to understand the sole presence of Justice (of all virtues) not to mean a virtue but an apocalyptic process. In this case, the black rider over the head of the female Dame Justice might refer to St. Michael, the Archangel of eschatological Judgment. In a time, from 1346 on, that was filled of a Death-cult, Flagellant repentance, and pregnant with awaiting the immediate end of the world (Joachim of Fiore, Spiritual Franciscans and others), it seems appropriate to depict “Judgment for Justice” following (or surrounding) the Black Death as (a very real) “sign” of an evil world to be destructed soon.

4. Love and Victory (Chariot) might easily refer to the impossibility to build on anything in a world filled with Death. When Death is taking Cupid’s bow, we know why…

5. Fate (Wheel) and Time (Hermit) just play other accords to the melody, stating the message already given: of “time’s up” or “beware Death in every second of your little life” to “try what you want, Death comes when it (not you) is (are) ready”…

6. Only three of the Bembo-cards may be left not showing immediate connection with the Black Death. The Hanged Man, however, can be related to the Black Death insofar the religious and apocalyptic depictions of Death shows sometimes hanging men being punished for their sins. The Popess may be just a nun with regalia because she had authority of jurisdiction; so she is related to the other human states. I do not know what the “Magician” (really a wrong name for the elegant man in red in the Bembo-deck, though) could mean except someone being (comparatively) rich but, as we know (from the whole series and how it ends), being on its “last supper” when (Black) Death comes.

A last argument in favor of this thesis is this: If it is really true that Michelino-deck is the first “triumphal” deck (at least earlier than any known triumphal deck with the true Tarot-subjects), it follows that 1. “trionfi” must not be identified with what we name “Tarot” – it depicts 16 Greek gods – and that 2. the origin of the imaginary of the subjects we (today) name “Tarot” was not necessarily the only or first series of icons taken to represent the triumphal tradition, but this relation was rather contingent. This leaves space for the idea that the origin of a trionfi deck that depicts what we finally recognize as Tarot – as in the Bembo-deck – could have come from many sources (outside the triumphal tradition). One that prevailed could have been the Black Death-story, which, when it was invented, was related to the triumphal tradition that might have been (re)enacted (by the Vicontis) and being accompanied by a trionfi-deck…

So, the 14 Bembo-cards could represent a spiritual "icon" in the wake of the Black Death, taken up at the Visconti-court to be included in the triumphal tradition that seemingly furthered the production of triumphal decks…



If I may offer a word...

...I can certainly see the relationship as you state it; moreover, I believe that this theme had become so ubiquitous by the time the Tarot was realized that this was one of many places one would find it. Church glass would be another (or the chapels belonging to great houses and castles). The theme of "Memento Mori" was particularly prevalent in Northern Continental Europe. (An art history scholar :D)


Triadic Unity: I XIII XXI

I've become convinced that the skeleton figure is wearing
an apron and babushka ~ that wrap-around head scarf.

Representing the passive element in the 1 2 3 cycle of
Action Reaction Completion, card XIII being the second
stage ~ my intuition tells me that the irony is sweeping.
La Mort is also feminine, in keeping with the triadic dynamic.

Then there is the allowable play on the physical numbers:
1 13 21 suggests One-One-Three-Two-One... but who knows?


Just curious:

What is the significance of 1-1-3-2-1? I've never heard of it before. 666, of course, natch, but that's about it! :D


numerological musicality

danubhe said:
What is the significance of 1-1-3-2-1?
It's a little game you can play with the physical numbers.
Not counting or adding, but just looking.

They are of course:
I. Le Bateleur
XIII. La Mort
XXI. Le Monde


1 13 21 are visually 1 1 3 2 1 : two 1's, a 2, a 3, and a 1,
and if you allow them to dance, putting them together and
taking them apart, it's kind of a catchy tune ~ and lots of fun.


Yatima said:
So, the 14 Bembo-cards could represent a spiritual "icon" in the wake of the Black Death, taken up at the Visconti-court to be included in the triumphal tradition that seemingly furthered the production of triumphal decks…
Now let's get back to Yatima's ideas. I was just commenting
on a very Tarot aspect of Death as a major arcana card,
one of twenty-two.

How about something key, a central point to develop?


Unfortunately, neither roppo nor jmd have posted their findings and thoughts on the relation of the 14 Nothelfer (foremost St. Roch for the Fool and St. Barbara for the Tower) to the Tarot again. When I remember right, both referred to the production of pictures of the 14 saints on spiritual/religious reasons, namely to help in times of the Black Death.

The question is whether there could be any relation between these little pictures/cards of the 14 saints and the Tarot imaginary – e.g. the Bembo 14 as one of the oldest structure of the trumps reflecting possibly the world under the plague and its spiritual/eschatological solution. This would also imply somehow a German origin (of precursors) of the Tarot…

* Since the Council of Constance (1414-1418), the possibility of an influence of German card production on Italian card-making is acknowledged. So, the German background and origin of cards of the 14 saints could have had a channel to the projected origin of the Tarot in Northern Italy.

* The Karnöffel with its Karnöffel, Emperor, Pope and Devil might have had an influence on the development of the Tarot – with its connection to the Imperatori-game, present in Florence/Ferrara 1423.

* Some of the Nothelfer produced as little cards and their representations were seen as "magical" (although orthodox) images helping to prevent Black Death to come when seen, held, and prayed to. So, they where important spiritual objects taken by people wherever they went. Here might be also a "magical" connection to Tarot in a pre-Tarot model.

* We know of 1395 Bologna that “A certain Federico of German origin, suspected of pushing counterfeit coins in Bologna in 1395, also sold cartas figuratas et pictas ad imagines et figuras sanctorum.” (Ortalli 197). So, cards and saints as held and sold together (maybe the 14 Nothelfer) are known not only in Germany, where the Nothelfers came from, but also in Northern Italy.

* In 1430 Florence, we hear of Antonio di Giovanni di ser Franceso, listed as a naibaio by trade. “In the portata d’estimo of 1430, he declared many woodcuts for cards and pictures of saints—tante forme di legname da naibi e da santi.” (Ortalli 197). So, forms for cards and saints are present at the time of the invention of the Tarot.

* The imaginary of the Bembo-14 was not the first and only one (standing for the now accepted Tarot-design), but probably the Michelino-Tarot of 16 Greek god-trumps. So, the Bembo-imaginary might have been already in place as set of cards sold by some card-maker also selling pictures/cards or forms of saints.

Would it be possible, then, to imagine the Ur-Tarot (like the Bembo-14) to have been brought about or produced by someone (from Germany?), selling also cards of saints as spiritual images for daily use?



There are so many posts which have disappeared!!!...

Based on the notes I kept, here was my earlier post:

Each time new possibilities are looked at more collectively, different dimensions arise. Even if some of those aspects have been mentioned before, it (whether by Robert Laplace - great to also mention his Tarot of the Saints in this context! - or others), it is sometimes reconsiderations in light of a proposal which leads into deeper territories.

For myself, I find this exciting.

If one looks at, just for a moment, the Fourteen Holy Helpers - which were, as mentioned in the given link, 'invoked as a group because of the Black Plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1349', and also consider the various references to the 5 X 14 proposal given by Autorbis and others, a further connection is possible made.

It may be, for example, that as those fourteen cards-as-amulet-set travelled from their place of production or popularity, they were added to Mamluk-type cards. Further (my own theoretical preference here comes in), the images were also noted and connected with various similar (yet different) imagery upon the external profiles of French Cathedrals, and that these further modified the imagery. Yet later, again further modifications following Jewish and Huguenot expulsions determined a standardisation based on alphabetic considerations (to write and restrict this to a single paragraph leaves much to be desired!).

If we look, however, at the Fourteen Helpers/Martyrs specifically, there are certainly a number of fabulous correlations.

Let's go through the list (from the link given previously). I'll follow, as per the link, the same alphabetical order of names as given there:
  • Acacius, as centurian complete with epaulettes, certainly seems to recall the Charioteer. All the more for two especial and connected reasons: on the one hand (literally and metaphorically), he holds a sprig of acacia, as does our victorious charioteer, but further, this is often a representation of 'victory over death' - the acacia being a wood which was considered not to rot (see some Masonic references for this).

    In addition, further reflections may also have been made to the altar - constructed of acacia covered with bronze - as described in Exodus 27:1-8, which bears striking similarities to a possible representation of the Chariot card, with Christ as Charioteer being the supreme sacrifice therein.

    Date: 7th or 8th of May (Aries - fits card)
  • Barbara has already been mentioned and detailed earlier...

    Date: 4th December (Sagittarius - as Archer, fits card)
  • Blaise, as representing a healing and blessing of the throat, certainly may have qualities reminiscent of the Pope representation - and the image on the linked site also makes for such a close rapport, with at his feet two individuals (though in this case a mother - kneeling - and child).

    Date: 3rd February (Aquarius - can fit card, but not in any obvious manner)
  • Catherine, again, has been mentioned. Her relatively common representation on various Cathedral and church buildings, with her wheel which has so may connotations, may have lead to the association to either Papess (which on some early decks definitely has a wheel-spindle type implement at her feet) or to the Wheel of Fortune.

    Given that she is patroness of learning and libraries (ie, books), her further association with the Papess seems fair.

    Date: 25th November (Sagittarius - linked to higher learning, fits II)
  • Christopher I have also previously mentioned in the Marseille section with regards to the Hermit card. As not only carrying Christ (ie, the Light of the World - see also that thread), but as related to travellers and virtually always represented with staff and, prior to his taking over as Hermit assisting with crossing a difficult river, was basically a wandering hermit, makes the association quite likely.

    Having said this, there is also an interesting image which could suggest a connection to an early 'uprighted' representation of the Hanged Man - which, given that I have said this here, I will post in Le Pendu thread.

    Date: 25th July (Leo - except for Light of the World being also connected to the Sun, which rules Leo, there doesn't seem to be much of a connection)
  • Cyriacus, or Judas Quiriacus, who may have been the revealer as to where the 'true cross' was, and bishop of Jerusalem, is a more difficult one to place...

    Yet, if one considers that there is also a legend which connects this Saint (Cyriacus as killed child) with a dream Charlemagne had (Cf here), it may well be also connected with the Emperor-as-Charlemagne.

    The image of child-riding-a-wild-boar is of course inconsistent with our familiar Tarot imagery.

    Date: 4th May/16th June (Gemini/Cancer - a stretch for a link to the Emperor...)
  • Denis, Dionysius, as Bishop of Paris, may well have been another Pope-like figure... but cannot see the connection to any particular Tarot image (over and above this more general one).

    One of the strange aspects, of course, is that given the number of beheadings, all Tarot representations of bodied individuals keep their heads firmly on their shoulders... except for those lossened ones found lying about without bodies on XIII...

    According to catholic.org, 'in the ninth century, Denis' story and identity became fused and confused with Dionysius the Areopagite and Pseudo-Dionysius'. Given the important influence this aspect was to also later (at the times we are considering) have on neo-neoplatonism and the late mediaeval syncretic traditions and the possible influence on Tarot, this remains, of course, fascinating, but, again, not seemingly of direct iconographic connection.

    Date: 9th October
  • Elmo, also known as Erasmus - and connected to St Elmo's 'fire'. Also having has hot iron hooks stuck into his intestines (CF catholic.org), what comes to mind is the Devil card... but again, nothing of seeming direct connection.

    Date: 2nd June (Cancer)
  • Estachius, having been thrown to the lions, with which he played 'as though they were kittens', certainly calls to mind one possible representation of Strength.

    His earlier (pre-Christian) name being Placidus, the serenity depicted on the Strength card also could recall this same Saint - and again, with St Denis, an important connection to the Parisian area relics.

    Date: 20th September (so close to equinox as to make one wonder)
  • George, killer of the Dragon, has so many overlays of similarity in iconographic representation that it may be possible that it may have been later re-connected with the archangelic Michael, holding the scales of Justice, and himself slaying the Dragon. In that case, the scales of course depict Libra (St Michael's day being on the 29th of September).

    What is of course interesting are, in this case, the astrological similarities and connections between St George and St Michael, connecting, in similar ways, the two equinoctial points.

    With the Dragon which St George kills is also associated the eating (by the former, not St George, lambs - ie, Aries).

    Date: 23rd April (Aries - but see my note above re: connection and parallel with St Michael and September's equinox in Libra)
  • Giles, again a Hermit-type figure, yet one of the few mentioned who has an ecstatic vision of Christ (Christ in ascension?), and again, importantly, connected with various aspects of the Parisian area.

    Date: 1st September
  • Margaret, as connected to childbirth, may also be symbolically connected with the Empress, whose 'duty' was to provide children. Yet, her experiences (swallowed by the mouth of the Devil, etc) also makes for possible connections with some early representations of both Devil and of Tower as entry to Hell.

    Date: 20th July (cusp Cancer/Leo - which 'fits' Empress as related to the home and Leo as protecting one's children)
  • Pantaleon, with that linguistic reference to 'five Lions' and his feast date, could indeed also connect with 'Strength'. Yet his principal role is as healer....

    Date: 27th July (Leo - fits, but more because of the name)
  • Vitus, related to the 'dance' of those in the throng of what may be considered ecstatic epileptic condition (and it was certainly partly considered to be sacred in some regions), may be related again to one of the representations in the depiction of the World as 'dancer' in sacred space.

    His depiction with, again, a lion, also connects it with Strength...

    Date: 15th June (Gemini)
So many wonderful aspects to consider - but am more struck by the important aspects which this group also had with Parisian centred considerations, including numerous references either directly to Paris, to Charlemagne, or to St Joan of Arc (of course, this latter being later).

Thanks for again a wonderful thread for further considerations.


Oh, my apology, Yatima! I didn't forget this thread, but recently I have lots of things to consider.

Re 14 Saints: as you point out, I also believe their images were regarded as a kind of amulets or talismans against the pestilence. And their images were taken up by later and greater artists to express a sort of wish-making. Once I wrote about this in a web article (in Japanese, sorry). You can see the jpeg, though.


The picture down below the page is by Memling, showing from left to right, St George(perhaps), St Maurus, St Christopher, St Giles, and St Barbara. The three saints in the centre has a common characteristics, that is, the walking ability. St Maurus is known as a water-walker, St Christopher is needless to say , and St Giles is the patron of cripples. And the sponsors are depicted with St George and St Barbara. Considering all these, I suspect this picture was made by the request of a soldier who had his leg injured and hoping to be cured. We can perceive the intention through the expressed combination of the Saints. Of course only the rich and noble could afford such an expensive contribution. Not so rich men perhaps did the same thing by cheap woodcuts of the Saints and this could be an element of the evolution of tarot cards.

Well, this post is rather a digression, I suppose. But what I would like to say is that the we can have many perspectives for the 14 Saints. And by considering them, I sniff something mysterious, something which makes me think that the tarot cards was not made just for gambling and gaming.


In a comment on the origin or appearance of playing cards in Europe at trionfi.com, Huck says: "We've the curious condition, that playing cards seem to spread from the southern German and Suisse region, although - if they had come via Italy or Spain and Mamluks - one should suspect greater production centers there. Between Italy and southern Germany are the Alps - there were different cultures at both sides, of course with some connection, but ... especially under the conditions "after the black death" there should have been a problem to cross the mountains with cultural innovation (compare: Johannes of Rheinfelden and Council of Constance and Name of Karnöffel)..."

Yes, this is an interesting question, and it strengthens the case for the Nothelfer or any mediating set of amulets to be brought to Italy or invented by German card- and saints-amulet-sellers, as I mentioned earlier in this thread.

So, maybe, some pre-Tarot Bembo-14-like woodcuts and amulet-cards or card-sets are a valuable trace for the nascendent Tarot, before it reached the Italian courts, introducing them into their Michelino-triumphal-tradition.

Could they origionally have been a set of amulets from Germany related to the Black Death?