Page Two - The Dante Tarot - An Examination by Paula Gibby  

Major Arcana

Although the poetry and prose of the Convivio is rather difficult to wade through, by contrast, the major arcana cards in the Dante Tarot do a lot of the work for you by assimilating the ideas and presenting them in a beautiful and clear manner. Not only is it clearly apparent that the works of Dante are very familiar to Giordano Berti, it is equally obvious that Serio read (and reread) Dante as well. The result of all that knowledge and research is a series of cohesive, visually articulate cards that manage to distill Dante’s ideas into digestible chunks.

The Fool is, of course, Dante himself. He is the pilgrim, the hero of this journey and it is through his experiences that we, in turn, draw upon wisdom and illumination to proceed along our own paths. His pack is filled with his writings, they are the "primer" he takes along – his "book of instructions" on how to navigate the pathways. Writings that he will discard further along in his journey. Just like we all do.

The Magician is a human representation of pure intellect. The Great Thinker. Robed in flawless white, he could represent any of the philosophers/scientists Dante held in such great respect…Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates.

The High Priestess represents philosophy - the intuitive expansion of ideas germinated by the intellect of the Magician. Whereas, in the Magician, the books are lined rigidly and precisely in their appropriate places on the bookshelves, the High Priestess takes them down, brings them close to her, opening and touching them. She brings a softer, more subtle and diffused interpretation and experience to what the Magician has wrought. Observe the use of light in this image…the softness lends an aura of introspection and turning inward which is so much a part of this card.

In the Empress, we see the marriage of the energies of the Magician and High Priestess. Dante believed that true Wisdom could only be achieved by the skillful blending of pure intellect and philosophy. For those of you whose mother tongue is English, don’t let the title of this card mislead you. The better translation of the Italian word "sapienza" is wisdom – not knowledge. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I think most would agree that there is a great deal of difference between the two. Dante spends a great amount of time talking about Wisdom with a capital W, this blending of intellect (reason) and philosophy and I think it’s an important distinction to keep in mind. Berti and Serio made an inspired decision when choosing this theme as the basis for the Empress card, for, not only is Serio’s image a beautiful rendering of the figure of the Empress, but also, the theme itself perfectly expresses the idea that the Empress is a representation of the marriage of energies manifested by the Magician and High Priestess.

The Emperor and Pope also find their correspondences in the writings of the Convivio. Dante believed very strongly in the separation of church and state. He believed that both required strong, firm leadership that did not trespass upon the authority of each other. To Dante, these positions were much more than occupations for two leaders…they were important and necessary power symbols of order and structure, each commanding ultimate power and control within their own spheres of expertise. . He believed strongly and literally in the necessity of an Emperor, ruling all civil matters and in a Pope, the symbolic representation of the power of the Church.

Dante’s work is an interesting blend of strong Christian themes and philosophies combined with some rather interesting metaphysical concepts. It may see odd to us, but it is perfectly in keeping with beliefs of Dante’s day. And it makes for fascinating reading. We see an example of Serio’s adept visual interpretation of this blend in the Death card. Here we see a recently departed soul, taking that final voyage across the treacherous waters of Acheron. An angel gently blows air into the sails, keeping the small craft moving forward. In the depths below, we see the Devil himself, wrapping huge arms around the boat, threatening to take it away; however, the occupant keep his face resolutely turned upward towards the figure of Christ (his head crowned with thorns). The message? That by looking at and turning towards the light, we can traverse the treacherous waters of death and arrive safely at our destination.

All the cards are lovely and each deserves its own mention, but it would take much too long and we have the minor arcana ahead of us. However, I cannot leave the major arcana without discussing what I consider to be one of the most interesting and important cards I’ve seen in a very long time.

Of course, everyone has his/her own definition of "interesting" and "important". To me, it describes an image that brings a new light or interpretation to a card. It elicits a reaction and a chain of meditation and thinking that might never have been explored had not this particular image been created. The last time I had this type of reaction was towards Arnell’s Devil card in the Transformational Tarot. In that card, Arnell brought to light an interpretation that now seems natural and obvious, but prior to her interpretation, just wasn’t present in other tarot decks at the time. In Arnell’s card, she portrayed herself as the Devil, emphasizing that we are our own devil. Jung called it our "shadow self". But Arnell went further. Not only did she portray her own shadow side, but, by placing the spiderwoman behind her web, she illuminated the concept that the devil is just as much in bondage as those he/she snares.

After amassing a collection of almost 500 decks, Arnell’s Devil card still remains one of the most interesting renderings I have ever seen.

But it sure has a rival in Serio’s Devil card. Like Arnell, Serio portrays a Devil who is, like those he snares, in bondage. Alone in a dark, bleak environment, the Dante Devil is shackled to his own iron-gray throne.

But there is more – so much more – to this Devil. Note the dramatic impact of his posture…he crouches upon knees and elbows, his face covered with one hand. One can practically feel the emotion emanating from this card. This is not the powerful, grinning, self-assured Devil we have grown accustomed to seeing; nor is this Arnell’s "Shadow Self", so enjoying herself that she either doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) that she herself is in bondage.

But the Dante Devil does care – this is so clear. He is more than a being in bondage. There is a poignancy and pathos to this image that goes beyond simple confinement.

No, the mental and spiritual pain and anguish is generated by this Devil’s full knowledge and awareness that he IS in bondage. Furthermore, this much pain can only be experienced by a being who knows exactly what he had - and what he has lost.

Lucifer, beautiful Morning Star, beloved of God the Father. Angel over all angels.

Lucifer, who allowed his own ego, his own desire for gain and recognition, to lead him into his own destruction.

And he "fell"…was cast out…banished forever from what he now wants more than anything…to be within the sight of God once again; that is, to be in the presence of the light.

Something he can never, ever have. The finality of the punishment sears the mind. Sears his mind.

Serio’s Devil helps us perceive and explore so many illuminating ideas. First, like Arnell’s Devil, he realizes that he was his own "devil", his own worst enemy. For not only was the Devil’s pathway created by he, himself, he knows that he was the very first being to walk that path – never to return. Hell is something he created…and he was its first inmate. His fall was due to his own intense, primal greed. Greed for fame, worship and recognition, but most of all, he was greedy for power. He was avid for the power to rule over the hosts of heaven.

Second, he realizes that he, too, is just as much in bondage as those whom he snares. In fact, his bondage is far greater because he has no hope of redemption. In the Waite-Smith deck, we are reminded of the shackled victims. We can see that they could easily remove their own chains if they wanted to. And therein lies the important difference. They, the Devil's victims, have Hope. Hope of redemption.

The Devil has no hope at all. It was stripped away from him as was everything else of true value. And the only relief that he receives from his intense misery is by sharing it with other beings; by trying to do everything within his power to take their hope away as well so that they will have no choice but to share the depth of his loneliness forever. Lack of hope is the ultimate doom and ultimate prison.

As can be read upon the Gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno:

"Abandon Hope all ye who enter here."

Misery does love company.

Lastly, and most significantly of all, Serio’s Devil FEELS. He feels pain, agony and anguish. But most poignant of all, he feels remorse. He is sorry for what he has done. He wants what he used to have. Would give anything to regain it. He wants to go home. But he can’t. Ever.

He wanted authority and power and he got what he wished for. But it is a dark, lonely, cold power with no sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. It is an empty power with a hunger that can never be sated, no matter how many souls he feeds to it.

Be careful what you wish for.

If I didn’t like anything else about this deck, I would buy it for this one card alone. Just to be able to meditate upon the image and explore the depths of what is contained within it. Do I need to refer to some LWB to assist me in penetrating the depths of this image? No. It stands on its own…overpowering in the intensity of its anguish, grief and loneliness. The image speaks in a voice as loud as a clarion call, for Serio and Berti have stripped away the mask of the Devil and laid him bare for all of us to see.

Now that’s a tarot card.

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