Review by Kim Huggens
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
From the creator of the acclaimed Alchemical Tarot comes a deck which makes use of a subject hardly touched upon in the tarot world. Robert M. Place, in the Tarot of the Saints, links the tarot with Catholic Saints: martyrs and heroes either real or legendary, made holy and God-like by the Catholic Church.
Very rarely do I come across a deck researched so well, and very rarely do decks contain as much brilliant scholarship as this one. Place has managed to perform the almost miraculous task of mixing equal amounts of the mystical side of the tarot with scholarly research and historical fact, and this is what makes this deck such a joy to use and review.
Many people who use tarot may not feel entirely comfortable with the Catholic saints, but to me they are another pantheon, just like the Celtic Gods or Greek deities, and thus I found it surprisingly easy to work with this deck and understand its take on the cards. Each card is illustrated with a scene depicting either a saint or a scene in the life of a saint, and the meanings of the cards are conveyed through the stories surrounding these saints. I found this to be a very effective method of conveying meaning, since many people find it easier to find meaning in stories than they do in trying to memorize lists of keywords. So for instance, St. Sophia is used to represent the World, and anybody who knows the stories and allegories surrounding Sophia will immediately grasp the concept of the World card. In just the same way, the Five of Cups is illustrated by Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and through the story of the Fall from Eden, the meaning of the Five of Cups is conveyed brilliantly.
However, there is a downside to this: the images in the cards are virtually impossible to understand if one doesn’t know the stories associated with the cards. For instance, the Magician card does not have any imagery in it that would convey the meaning of that card, and instead the meaning is found entirely in the story of St. Nicholas. It seems that the images portray less meaning and more ‘saintliness’, in that they do a wonderful job of including the saints’ symbols and life story, but seem to be lacking in tarot meaning.
For beginners, this would be a big disadvantage, and whilst everything is explained very well in the book, it would be very difficult for a beginner to read with this deck without referring back to the book constantly. However, it would mean the book would need to be read, which I think is a good thing, as the book itself contains some brilliant information about the tarot that would benefit a beginner. (More on that later, though!)
I find the choice of saints for each card ranges from genius to slightly shallow in places. For instance, St. Mary Magdalene representing the Popess to me is ingenious, given both her place amongst Jesus’ disciples and what the Bible says about her, all of which is explained in the section about this card in the book. Choosing St. Francis of Assisi for the Fool I think was also brilliant, but choosing St. Catherine to represent the Wheel of Fortune seemed quite strange and slightly disconcerting for me: St. Catherine was sentenced to death, and her method of execution was to be placed in a machine consisting of four wheels, which would rip her apart. Legend has it that the machine was struck by lightning and destroyed just before the execution was about to take place, but, to me, placing this legend in the Wheel of Fortune card does not convey the meaning of the card at all, and the link seems to have been made simply because of the existence of a wheel in Catherine’s story.
Fortunately, however, most of the choices for saints in the cards are well chosen, and I found it a joy to look through the deck to find out which saint was attributed to which card. I was disappointed, though, to see my favourite saint absent from the deck: St. Brigit, the midwife of Christ. To me, she would have made an excellent Empress card, but this is just my personal opinion.
The deck itself is very traditional: the titles of the Major Arcana and suit names are not changed, and the meanings of the cards are also fairly traditional. The only thing that is non-traditional is the images in the cards, although in the Minor Arcana, the images are not entirely different from the more traditional ones. Some of them depict scenes from Christian literature and stories, whilst others depict generic scenes. For instance, the Three of Cups depicts Mary Magdalene and her two women-companions approaching Christ’s tomb, whilst the Six of Swords simply depicts a mother and child running away. The Minor Arcana seem to have more meaning embedded in the pictures than the Majors, and the Minors focus less on the Saints than the Majors do. They are fully illustrated, with the swords, cups, coins or staffs at the top of the card, and the meaningful scenes set below these. For instance, the Five of Cups has five cups floating in the top half of the card, whilst below these we see Michael expelling a sorrowful Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
The Court Cards are represented by saints, in the same way that the Major Arcana are, and this has both its advantages and disadvantages: it can be difficult to interpret the Court Cards in a reading if one is unfamiliar with the saints in question, but it is also useful to have historical or legendary figures as the Court Cards, because these capture one’s imagination and can convey the qualities associated with each Court Card a lot better than some of the more traditional ways of presenting the Courts (e.g., the King of Swords simply being a crowned man, on a throne, holding a sword). Many of these Court Cards were a joy to look at, my particular favourites being the Knight of Swords (St. George) and the Knight of Cups (St. John), simply because the meanings of these cards were so aptly conveyed through excellent choice of saint. I found the Court Cards in this deck a lot easier to read than the Court Cards from the traditional Rider Waite Tarot deck for this reason.
The backs of the cards, whilst not being reversible, are simple and at the same time beautiful. They are coloured only with white and purple, and have a checkered pattern upon which two different paisley patterns appear: a never-ending Celtic-like knot, and what looks like a sheaf of corn. Going down the center of the backs are three diamonds, within each is one of three pictures: An eye within a triangle, a dove of peace, and finally what looks like a depiction of the heart of Christ.
The description of ‘simple yet beautiful’ can be applied to the card fronts as well, as Robert Place’s impeccable artwork once again shines brilliantly. The artwork looks like simple pen-and-ink drawings, yet the detail is astounding: there is not one symbol in the cards that you can miss, yet at the same time the cards are refreshingly uncluttered. The colors are bold and bright, yet still easy to look at and often give a very regal feel to the pictures.
This regal feel is added to by the borders on the cards: The Major Arcana are surrounded by a double border of purple and gold, the Cups by green and gold, Swords by blue and gold, Coins by yellow and gold, and finally Staffs by red and gold. The titles of the cards can be found underneath the border at the bottom of the card, in simple, black writing giving both the card title and the saint attributed to it. (The exception to this is the Minor Arcana, where only the title of the card is given.)
The Tarot of the Saints comes with an accompanying book, which is a veritable treasure-trove of information and insight. The Forward by Robert V. O’Neill says that the book is aimed at bridging the gap between an academic study of tarot history and the symbolic study of tarot meaning, and as I read the book through I could see this gap becoming narrower and narrower until it didn’t seem to exist at all: at least, not in this book! Place has masterfully written the book, entitled ‘A Gnostic Book of Saints’, to include historical studies and comments on each of the Major Arcana, as well as meaningful divinatory and philosophical insights into the cards. In the description of each Major Arcana card, Place includes a quotation that highlights the main meaning of the card, information about the life of the chosen saint, how that saint links in with the meaning of the card it represents, the historical image and meaning of the card, and finally ‘Tarot Wisdom’, which is a synthesis of all this and provides insight into the card itself. Not only did I find new insights into the tarot through this, but I also learned more about Catholic saints than I ever expected to: and the great thing about all this was that it didn’t feel like learning! It felt like a fun and relaxing stroll through the depths of Catholic imagination.
The descriptions of the Minor Arcana are much shorter, sometimes only consisting of two or three sentences, but this is because there is very little to explain: unlike the Major Arcana, the Minors do not have saints to represent them, and their scenes usually speak for themselves.
On top of the descriptions of the cards, the book has chapters on Tarot history, explanations of the concept of Saints, martyrs, and Gnostics, divination with the deck, and mystical theories surrounding the tarot. The latter I found very similar to those discussed in the book accompanying the Nigel Jackson Tarot, by Nigel Jackson, so those who appreciated Jackson’s theories may also like Place’s.
The book is very well written and refreshingly free of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Instead, Place moves from facts to interpretation, and asserts throughout a wonderful scholarly pace and attitude. The chapter on tarot history is particularly well researched and interesting.
Overall, this deck is a joy to own and use, although it maybe a little tricky for beginners or those who have little love for the Catholic saints. One question that jumped into my head continually throughout my reading of the book however, raises some interesting issues about the subject Place has chosen to focus on: With all the death, torture, virginity, and martyrdom, are Catholic saints really a good way of representing the concepts found within the cards? It seems at first that there is a distinct imbalance in the stories of the saints that may give each card a theme of death or sacrifice, and with some cards focussing on particularly unholy concepts, can we expect saints to represent such concepts satisfactorily? I am sure it would be a very difficult task to do this, but I feel Place has come as close as is humanly possibly to achieving a balance here: the dichotomy present in the lives of all saints- that of the love of God and the pain of torture and death- has been used to full effect in the tarot, where opposites are played out beautifully.
In the first few centuries of the esoteric Tarot, figures such as Court de Gebelin and Eliphas Levi added other esoteric systems to this system, such as astrology and the Kabbalah. Even if the Tarot of the Saints is not a deck for all Tarot-users, Robert Place has succeeded in adding to the tarot another valuable system through which another level of the tarot can be discovered. In essence, Place has succeeded in doing exactly what those great tarot enthusiasts of the past did, and I particularly hope to see the Judeo-Christian religions linked to the Tarot a lot more in the future. Not only does the Tarot have its roots in the Judeo-Christian schools of thought, but in recent years it seems that tarot and Christianity have grown further and further apart. This gap between them is pointless and causes us to lose sight of a treasure house of wisdom, and the more Tarot decks focus on Judeo-Christian thought, the narrower that treacherous gap will become.
A beautiful deck created by a wonderful artist and excellent scholar, perfect for those who want a new take on the cards.
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
You can read other reviews of this deck here, here, and here.
Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place
Publisher: Llewellyn Publishing
Kim Huggens is an 18 year old Pagan, studying for a Philosophy degree at Cardiff University. She has been studying Tarot heavily since the age of 9, and currently lives with her wonderful boyfriend, Simon, in Cardiff. She also enjoys writing and collecting Tarot decks, and currently has around 110 in her collection.
Review © 2003 Kim Huggens
Images © 2001 Llewellyn Worldwide
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes