Page Three - The Dante Tarot - An Examination by Paula Gibby
It is in the structure of the minor suits that we find Dante’s epic, timeless poem, the Commedia.
The first suit we encounter is the Suit of Bricks. Whereas literal bricks and mortar combine to provide the structure and foundation of a building, so does this suit represent the foundation for the concepts that are set forth in the Commedia. A "prequel" to the events contained within the poem itself, in these cards, we meet Dante and some of the people and situations that laid the groundwork for his great poem. The Aces are particularly fine in the Dante Tarot and we are treated to the first one in the Suit of Bricks. Here we see Dante once again. How fitting is the open book – the Commedia itself – the beginning of the entire journey through the 56 Minor Arcana. Sprouting from the depths of the book is the Living Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, symbol of life eternal – symbol of the soul’s immortality. It is a marvelous portent of what is to come, for we will encounter this beautiful and inspiring symbol many times in the course of Dante’s great journey.
The second suit is the Suit of Flames. In this suit, we see the unfolding story of Dante’s awakening in the Dark Wood (symbolic of a spiritual midlife crisis), his meeting with his guide (Virgil), his descent through the Nine Circles of Hell and his encounters with the various inhabitants, culminating in a dramatic meeting with the Lord of Darkness, Satan himself. The almost surrealistic artistic style of Serio is ideally suited to interpret the certainly surreal environment in which Dante finds himself…the fantastical beings, eternal punishments inflicted that rival anything in the Spanish Inquisition, the nightmarish quality of the experience.
Again, the Ace is just a wonderful card, for in it we see the visual depiction of the compelling first cantos of the Commedia. Here is Dante, standing in the middle of the Dark Wood. But what a wood it is! Organic, thick, ominous in the way it seems to move, change shape and congeal around him. By contrast, observe the forbidding, rigid gate in the distance. The gateway to Hell. The threshold of Death. Any card that takes on the task of visually representing the very first phrases of this great poem carries a heavy burden and Serio’s considerable talent has more than lived up to the challenge – it is a perfectly rendered interpretation.
"Midway this way of life we’re bound
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Ah me! How hard to speak of it – that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! The mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;
It is so bitter it goes night to death…"
It is interesting that, within this same suit also resides what I consider to be the only visually weak card in the deck. As you would expect in a suit representing a journey through Hell, the King of Flames is none other than the Devil himself. Now, in the Commedia, Dante’s meeting with the Devil, which is the culminating event in the Inferno, is an absolutely horrific experience. And well it should be, for what stands before him in the deepest, coldest, darkest regions of Hell is the gargantuan figure of Satan. Listen to the words of Dante as he describes this encounter:
"Ask me not, Reader; I shall not waste
Telling what words are powerless to express;
This was not life, and yet it was not death.
…And he [Satan] wept
From his six eyes, and down his triple chin
Runnels of tears and bloody slaver dripped."
This would be horrifying enough, but Dante takes it further, for in the Inferno, as you can begin to understand from the reference to three chins and six eyes, you discover that Dante’s Satan has three enormous heads.
And three mouths - each of which is busily chewing. Chewing endlessly and eternally. Not just punishing evil…but cannibalizing it. The sinners whom he ceaselessly chews in his mouths are Judas, Brutus and Cassius – the three great traitors. Judas, of course, is easy for us to understand, but perhaps Cassius and Brutus less so. Dorothy Sayers explains it beautifully when she writes, "when the piercing beauty and mystery of true love and friendship is betrayed by one who had full awareness of the mystery and purity of this love, he has betrayed totality (existence) itself."
As you can see, the enormity of both the mental visual picture Dante so eloquently describes, coupled with the absolute horror of the punishment, presents a daunting task for an artist. I understand this and so, knowing full well that any Dante tarot would certainly contain an interpretation of this encounter, I was prepared to approach the card with an open mind and not allow my hopes to be blown out of proportion. However, even with that preparation, I was disappointed with Serio’s interpretation. The disappointment was increased by the knowledge that Serio’s talent, ability and vision could have produced something much more intensely visual. Instead, what we have in this card is a rather cartoon-ish, bland rendering that really sets it apart from the other cards in this deck. It is this cartoon-ish nature that strips any sense of reality from the image – and hence, the horror as well. Satan doesn’t look terrifying here, he just looks silly and one does not appreciate the horror of the punishment…the eternal cannabalism...the weeping Satan.
The third suit is the Suit of Clouds, wherein is related the story of Dante’s journey through Purgatory, the place where souls come to reflect upon and actively atone for their earthly sins according to an almost set schedule. Once atonement is completed, the soul finds himself at the top of the mountain in the Garden of Eden. And then, with a huge clap of thunder that shakes the entire mountain, the soul is freed from his final ties, rising above and away…reaching ecstatically for the light of God. When this great event occurs, the entire population of Purgatory’s inhabitants rejoice for, where that soul now walks, they too will walk once their penances are completed. Again, the concept of Hope reigns and it is an important delineating factor that separates the inhabitant of Hell from the inhabitants of Purgatory. For those who reside in Purgatory know their stay there is but temporary. Every day, every action they take is a step forward to a goal they know with absolute certainty will be reached. That is why they perform their tasks single-mindedly and with utter joy. That is why, even though they are certainly fascinated by the appearance of a mortal in the midst (Dante), they do not wish to tarry for more than a few moment to satisfy their curiosity. For Dante, his personal journey through Purgatory also culminates at the top of the Mount. There, he finally meets with his ideal – the lovely, pure and spiritual Beatrice (Queen of Clouds).
Again, the Ace is a marvelous introduction to the suit, for here we experience the arrival of the souls in Purgatory. Contrary to what many of us may perceive about Purgatory as a grim place perhaps just one or two steps better than Hell, it is important to understand that this was not the view in Dante’s time. The souls sailing across the waters of death are singing and rejoicing. They cannot wait to begin their atonements because each day brings them closer to completion and closer to the light. It is important to remember that "Purgatory" does not mean a place of punishment. It is a place of purging and cleansing, for it is only when the soul is fully healed that it can transcend.
In this card, we see the great Ship of Souls. Observe the interior of that boat and the interior light that glows from within, shining upon the travelers. There is some shadow yes, but it is not the shadow of sorrow or evil; rather, it is the protective shadow of the ship’s pilot, the Great Angel (whom Dante so eloquently calls the "Great Bird of God") who guides the boat, spreading his wings to act as the sails to speed the boat along the waters of Acheron.
This suit brought me to the first card that I had difficulty reconciling to the cantos with which I was so familiar. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the image (because I did) – I just couldn’t understand it. In the Three of Clouds, we are introduced to Dante’s "Valley of the Rulers", a place inhabited by the good and kind potentates who never had time to attend to their own interior life because they were so busy doing good for others. These are the souls of the individuals who were so busy caring for the souls of others that they neglected their own spiritual development. The souls of these do-gooders live out their time of waiting in a place of great beauty, for, after all, they have been busy in the service of something other than themselves and their concern for other people has been truly sincere. This valley sparkles with jewel-like colors:
"Gold and fine silver, crimson and ceruse,
Wood yellow-lustrous, clear cerulean dye,
Indigo, fresh-cracked emerald’s brilliant hues,
Matched with the foliage and the flowers that lie
Heaped in that lap, would faint, as minor faints
Beneath its major, and show dim thereby."
Well naturally, I was puzzled when I first saw the Three of Clouds. There was the valley, but it was so colorless and softly bleak. The souls sit quietly, looking at nothing, unaware of their surroundings. There is such a lack of color and movement to the card and I found this perplexing.
I immediately wrote to Riccardo Minetti of Lo Scarabeo about this card and asked for an explanation, which he immediately provided me. What Serio desired to concentrate upon in this card was not the lovely surroundings, but the sense of waiting that these souls must experience. And along with the waiting comes an opportunity for these souls to perform that interior reflection necessary to prepare themselves for their final exit from Purgatory towards Paradise.
This brief explanation brought total illumination to me of this card. For is it any wonder that these souls show no interest in gorgeous surroundings, the beautiful jewel-like flowers and foliage? Their forms are still and quiet out of necessity, for within themselves is the most intense of inner exploration.
And so, the nature of the surroundings is totally unimportant to them, so much so that they experience no awareness of it. It has no color, no beauty. It is merely a place to sit so that they can travel deeply within themselves to the very core of their spirits.
For an artist to resist the temptation to paint such a breathtakingly lovely place in order to more articulately express the true meaning of the card, shows a very deep appreciation and knowledge of Dante’s message. Bravo to Serio for producing an image that penetrates to the heart of the message without getting caught up in the more visually tempting details. It is an extremely successful card.
The fourth suit is the Suit of Lights – the final and most mystical of the suits. These cards portray the journey of Dante as he, with Beatrice now as his guide, ascends through the circles of Heaven. He meets the inhabitants of each of the circles and finally rises to the Empyrean. As he watches, Beatrice ascends to sit at the throne of Mary, Mother of God (Queen of Lights) and all eyes turn towards the supreme being of light, God himself (King of Lights).
A strikingly beautiful card is the Queen of Lights. She is Mary, mother of Christ, the Queen of Heaven and the symbolism in this card is absolutely lovely. Here, we see Mary, seated upon her heavenly throne. She is clad in soft blue, the color so much associated with her. In this rendering she wears her heart openly for all to see – it is a symbolic reminder that she, Mary, has experienced the ultimate and most pure love…love for her son, only begotten of the Father. But look more closely. Surrounding her heart is a circle of thorns…a symbol that she not only experienced the ultimate purity of love, but maintained it, despite experiencing the ultimate in pain and suffering. It is a visual symbol that she understands the hearts of all sufferers and is therefore is Heaven’s chosen intercessor for all those who wish union with the Light. As they have suffered and wept, so has she wept. As they have loved, so has she loved.
Contained within her cloak is the immensity of the universe. It is a symbol that perfect, pure love (a love that is selfless and triumphs over any obstacle, pain or fear) is what holds our universe together and keeps it in place. This perfect love is the final threshold – the key – it is the doorway through which all beings who seek the Light pass in order to regain the ultimate union with the universe.
And so Mary sits at the Threshold of Eternity, God’s chosen representative to welcome all souls to their final home.
The suit cards of the Dante Tarot are particularly impressive. The progression from Aces to Kings is orderly and absolutely faithful to the poem. And therein lies the challenge and the answer to your first big question when purchasing this deck, which is:
Can I gain meaningful information and experience from these cards without being somewhat familiar with the Commedia and the Convivio?
And the Answer is…yes…and no.
With regard to the Major Arcana, yes, you can. Although you can certainly gain added insight into the cards by doing your homework, the images are evocative and faithful enough to the traditional meanings to allow you to read with them or simply meditate upon them. Frankly, it is a pleasure to do both.
But with the Minor Arcana, well, there’s the challenge, for there are no numerological, astrological, elemental or "occult" interpretations that can be overlayed onto the cards. They are an absolutely faithful retelling of Dante’s visit to each of the kingdoms…Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The events are depicted chronologically…just as they occur in the poem. If you lay the cards side-by-side with the poem, they mirror each other consistently, accurately, clearly and neatly. They could quite easily be used as flashcards in order to become more familiar and centered in the story. I can’t imagine a more lovely set of visual "milemarkers" to guide you on your journey through this epic poem.
The LWB applies divinatory meanings to the cards, but be warned, this deck does not utilize the Waite-Smith minor arcana divinatory meanings that so many readers use. It is, in fact, a series of cards with divinatory meanings uniquely designed to accommodate the characters and events in the Commedia
In other words, with the Minor Arcana, you will not be able to just pull out these cards, apply the meanings of your "mental deck" to it and expect to have it work for you in readings; and unless you have intuitive powers beyond any I have ever seen, simply being "intuitive" with these cards isn’t going to help much either. The images are evocative, but I assure you that you will only be scratching the surface of what is contained within them. There is so much more here to be appreciated.
In the tarot marketplace, we already have plenty of tarot decks that are perfect for doing readings without any study or preparation. So, if what you want is a deck that can be popped out of the box and read with immediately, you have lots and lots of choices.
That being said, does this mean that a deck that doesn’t quite fit into what we have come to perceive as the "standard" format therefore mean it is not a tarot deck? After all, the Dante Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, with 22 major arcana, and 56 minor arcana divided into 4 suits. It has a logically thought-out system and applies that system consistently and accurately. Oh yes, it is definitely a tarot deck.
But it belongs to a small, special class of decks whose purpose may be not so much to use for readings, but for something else of equal merit.
These are the decks that teach us. They have something important to say, but we have to study and put in an effort to understand what it is that we are looking at. The Dante Tarot is such a deck. In fact, it demands it. It demands it because it is such a faithful visual portrayal of the works upon which it is based. It is obviously the product of an artist and author who have read and reread the Convivio and Commedia. It is a labor of love. Labor devoted to a poet and philosopher who merits such time and effort.
So, how do you get your mental arms around such a deck? Well, to begin with, I would suggest the Commedia. Because if you can learn to appreciate this great poem, the Convivio will be much easier to tackle. Think of the Convivio as an etude, a treatise. Think of the Commedia as those same ideas…but now they have taken flight, assumed beautiful colors and hum with beautiful music.
It is a daunting task indeed and quite humbling - not to mention intimidating. Through the centuries, scholars have researched every detail of the Commedia, contributing information about words, sources, characters and philosophical concepts, resulting in a massive body of Dante studies available in journals, books and even online. Yet with this plethora of information and scholarship, the Commedia is seldom tackled by any but the most enthusiastic reader. Perhaps it is because of the limitations of translation; however, this can be disputed. Dante’s luminous clarity of phrase shines through all but the most inept of translations. Perhaps the reason lies in the archaic, medieval imagery, or the cantos that seems to go on and on about individuals against whom Dante obviously harbored intense resentments or frustrations.
Or perhaps we just make it too hard. Perhaps we allow ourselves to be so intimidated when we open one of the volumes and see all those annotations and footnotes that we shut the book hastily. Too reminiscent of college literature assignments, we think.
And that’s a great shame, because the Commedia is a great story. In fact, it is a version of "The Great Story". We tarotists call it by another name these days. We call it "The Hero’s Journey" -- the mystical journey of the soul in search of enlightenment, transformation and redemption. The great search and longing for the divine. We read stories like this all the time. And most of them are quite a bit easier to read than Dante’s 700-year-old Commedia.
Yet, we should read it. Why? Because if we, as tarotists, are at all interested in the roots of the tarot, it makes sense to explore a story which is a grand representation of that philosophical "soup" from whence the tarot images sprang. The philosophies, ideologies and religious and mystical tenets that Dante embraced and explored have the same origins and forebears of what were later manifested in a series of very interesting cards.
That leads us back to those slightly intimidating volumes. How to approach them?
Dorothy Sayers (who produced a quite excellent translation of the Commedia) once offered some sage advice to all newcomers to the Commedia. She suggested that, the first time anyone reads the Commedia, they should read it as a grand story, ignoring all the references, footnotes and appendices alluding to allegorical and symbolic imagery.
This is really excellent advice, for there is a tendency for all of us (when we get much too serious for our own good), to overanalyze and "overwork" an idea. Could it be possible that, in their genuine and sincere intentions to study and evaluate the Commedia, scholars have perhaps overcomplicated the whole thing? This is a distinct possibility, for there exists a tendency to treat the Commedia as some sort of monkey puzzle box , where Dante has written one thing, BUT he really means something totally different.
That is not to say that there is not allegory or symbolism in the Commedia. There certainly is. But if you read it more than once, familiarizing yourself with the story, the background, etc., you begin to find that Dante generally meant just what he said. In other words, yes, there is plenty of allegory in the Commedia, but it’s not quite as complicated or abstruse as has sometimes been presented. In fact, Dante himself wrote in his Convivio: He intended it to be an instruction for all those who read his writings to follow.
"The literal sense must come first, for it is the one in whose meaning the others are enclosed and without which it would be impossible and irrational to interpret the others."
What Dante is saying is: "Read what I wrote and understand it literally…only then can you begin to understand the allegorical and symbolic messages".
Which means that Dorothy Sayers had a pretty darn good idea. Read the Commedia as a grand story. Refrain from the endless analysis and overcomplication of the ideas presented. Step back from the trees and take a good look at the forest. When you encounter canto after canto of ranting against a particular enemy of Dante’s and you find yourself getting bogged down, simply skip it and move forward. I assure you that there are no "Dante police" waiting to fine you for not reading the Divine Comedy the "right" way.
Modern scholars have embraced this attempt to put the brakes on the overanalysis of the Commedia. There has even been an interesting version written in entirely prose form. I’ve read it and it’s pretty good -- which emphasizes once again that the Commedia is a wonderful and exciting story. It’s not the best way to read the Commedia, because then you miss out on all the beautiful and wondrous poetry. But it’s a start.
Still hesitant? Well, Ok. Let me see if I can simplify it somewhat by reminding you in ONE sentence what this great story is all about (big breath):
The Divine Comedy is Dante’s story of how he was guided through the circles of Hell to the center of the Earth (bottom of the Universe); then through a tunnel to the surface of the opposite Southern Hemisphere and up the great mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden on its top; and finally, through the nine spheres of the heavens to the end of space and beyond, into the spiritual dimension of the Empyrean (Kingdom of God).
Can you sense familiar ground here? It truly is a version of the Great Story. Because this poem is not only universal in the literal sense of the word (for it portrays the universe as Dante’s generation understood it and explores its meaning), but it is also Dante’s own journey through the universe; his journey to the particular woman he loved – and thus to his personal salvation.
Ah Beatrice…now what is she all about?
Readers (myself included) have become confused over the literal, allegorical and symbolic significance of Beatrice, the beloved of Dante – a woman he spoke to only a handful of times and who died young. There are huge chapters in large volumes devoted to the exploration of Beatrice and her multiple "roles" in the Commedia. It makes for lengthy, confusing reading which perhaps I can cut short for you by telling you what solved the confusion for me. For me, the resolution of the confusion was to simply think of Beatrice as Dante’s "Pearl of Great Price".
We are all unique beings and each person has a different "Pearl of Great Price". It can be any symbol, ideal or goal. Anything that provides the intense inner impetus for us to open our spiritual eyes, seek that solitary pathway and travel towards Unity (Love) with the Universe. For after all, what is Love, but perfect unity and oneness with the greater whole?
So, for Dante, his idealization and glorification of Beatrice was the vehicle he used to fuel his sense of spiritual exaltation, thus achieving that sense of oneness and unity (love) with the Universe.
The Love (with a capital L), which is described by Dante in his incredibly beautiful final canto:
"Yet as I wished, the truth I wished for
Cleaving my mind in a great flash of light.
High fantasy lost power and here broke off;
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
By the love that moves the sun and the other stars."
So where does that leave us? Well, when all is said and done and this article draws to a close, what we have is quite a little gem of a tarot deck in front of us. But how well we penetrate its depths depends largely upon us and that requires some effort and digging on our part.
Is it worth it? In my opinion, definitely. Understanding Dante’s Divine Comedy can provide you with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Fool’s Journey. If the Dante Tarot does nothing other than inspire you to take up this amazing poem and stick with it until the end, then it will have done you a huge service. How can you not learn from one of the great Hero’s Journeys? All of them have special things to teach us. Reading them and reinforcing those ideas by working with a deck like the Dante Tarot gives us an added dimension to our work with the tarot. Those layers may be subtle, but they are there. The more facets and layers you have eyes to appreciate, the more rewarding and insightful your tarot experience will be.
Fortunately, the Dante Tarot holds up well under its incredible burden of visually retelling one of the greatest of stories. In the hands of a less talented artist (Serio) and creator/author (Berti), it would be all too easy to end up with a series of cards completely overwhelmed and overshadowed by the greatness of the story it is attempting to relate.
In other words, it is a success. It is visually stunning and even the most ardent Dante purist will be satisfied with the images – they are absolutely faithful to the story. And how can you not want to lay these beautiful cards next to their corresponding (and breathtakingly eloquent and beautiful) cantos? Lovely words, lovely images. What a perfect treat for the mind and soul.
I strongly encourage all of you to go out and purchase this deck. But before you leave the bookstore, do yourself an enormous favor and pick up a copy of the Divine Comedy. Cards in hand, read it all the way through no matter how often you may want to give up. Allow these incredibly beautiful cards to lead you through the journey. What you will begin to experience is something wondrous, for you will see the tarot in the poem and the poem in the cards. It is an experience you should not avoid or deny yourself.
Then, read it again. I promise you will start to see things - not only in this tarot deck, but in others - that you may not have before fully appreciated.
If I could make one suggestion, it would be that this deck just cries out for a book. These cards are simply bursting with intriguing, alluring symbolism. As I look at them, I find myself "bursting". Bursting with questions as I come across one fascinating detail/symbol after another. A hunger to know and to penetrate the depths of this deck even more.
I understand that Berti has written a companion book but that it is only published in Italian. This is unfortunate because it is my understanding that what Berti has to say about the Dante Tarot and the work of Dante is well worth reading. And, when faced with a deck that represents such a huge and complex story, a book would be a lifeline and a great first step towards reading the Commedia itself.
What are you waiting for? Get started.
If you would like to order this deck, click here.
If you would like to order the book The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, click here.
Paula Gibby first began to study the tarot in the summer of 1996, as a result of studying Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. She completed two B.O.T.A. tarot courses and is an active member of Tarot-l and Comparative Tarot. She has contributed tarot reviews to Wicce's Tarot Page and is a major tarot collector--at present, she owns over 300 decks. Her spiritual studies continue to widen; she has completed several Reiki courses and has received the Reiki II attunements. Inspired by the work of Arnell Ando and Michele Jackson, she has created the Blue Rose Tarot and the Animal Tarot, and is presently quite busy as a Finance Manager in the Washington, D.C. area.
Images © 2001 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2001 Paula Gibby