Tarot of the Saints by Robert M. Place     Review by Lee A. Bursten

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Robert Place, whose Alchemical Tarot is very highly respected, has made a daring move with his new deck, Tarot of the Saints. While there are many Tarot decks with religious themes, there are none other that I know of which use a theme which most people would identify specifically with Catholicism, i.e. saints.

Place (or Rosemary Guiley, who suggested the idea to him) recognized that the iconic quality of Tarot cards has a correlation with icons themselves, defined in my dictionary as "a representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage." As Place points out in the accompanying Gnostic Book of Saints, the printers of early Tarot decks would have also printed icons, and there are many similarities to be found between the two categories. This would seem to be ample justification for creating a deck that contains images that can do double duty as Tarot cards and as icons simultaneously. But the Catholic Churchís unrelenting hostility toward divination in general and Tarot cards in particular, which Place does acknowledge in his book, creates a certain tension in the deck, a tension which is largely (but not completely) resolved by the strength and quality of Placeís artwork.

Being Jewish, I find that pictures and stories of saints do not have any cultural resonance for me, as they would if I had been raised in the Catholic tradition. Yet I find myself fascinated and captivated by Placeís pictures. They are highly evocative. Unlike other evocative decks, they donít contain multitudes of symbols on each card which the intuition can use as jumping-off points. Rather, they speak simply, eloquently, and powerfully. These pictures help me to have a deeper understanding of why Christian- and Catholic-related art has had such powerful effect on Christians and non-Christians alike down through the centuries.

In The Magician, St. Nicholas raises three children back to life. The children had been murdered and were being pickled in brine preparatory to being used for soup. In this and all the other cards, the simplicity of the overall effect is belied by Placeís sophisticated compositional technique.

In The Lovers, an anachronistic note is struck by having the three figures wear clothes from differing periods.

The Chariot, showing St. Christopher ferrying Jesus across a river, is a striking example of Placeís skill at finding matches between the Tarot archetypes and the stories of the saints.

Justice is an unusually forceful card. On this and other cards, good use is made of a particularly bright blood red. This image has been recycled from Placeís earlier Angels Tarot.

A pig makes an incongruous appearance on The Hermit, but of course there is a valid reason for its presence, as it symbolizes lust overcome.

One of my favorite cards is The Devil, where a Maurice-Sendak-like serpent is about to devour St. Margaret. This card adds a welcome touch of humor to an otherwise unremittingly serious deck.

I particularly like the Minor Arcana of this deck. Iíve always been fond of the older-style non-illustrated-Minor decks, and I very much like the device of having the older style arrangement of pips in the top half of the card, as well as an interpretive scene on the bottom half, a device also used in the Nigel Jackson Tarot. The pale beige or cream background of all the Minors also gives them a pleasant old-fashioned appearance. I was a little disappointed in the Court cards, which are illustrated with saints, because we seem to be back in the same territory as the Majors. I would have liked to have seen the Courts go in a different direction, in recognition of the fact that Court cards play a different function in a Tarot reading than do the Majors. Also, unlike the natural pairings between saint and Tarot concept which occur in the Majors, in some of the Courts Place sometimes seems to be straining to extract a unique divinatory meaning out of yet another story of a martyred saint.

It may be my imagination, but the King of Staffs looks to me like a self-portrait of the artist.

Unlike his prior two decks, Place has written his own accompanying book, and he did an excellent job. Itís quite refreshing to read a Tarot book in which the author has gone to the trouble to familiarize himself with the latest findings and research in Tarot history, rather than rehashing the same old outdated historical material which was current 20 years ago. I learned quite a few things by reading this book. I liked the fact that Place has a section for each Major card where he discusses in depth the traditional imagery of that card, but I did find it a little disconcerting, because Placeís imagery departs so significantly from the traditional. Iím afraid a Tarot newcomer would be quite at sea trying to follow Placeís descriptions of the Visconti-Sforza Magician card, while looking at the completely different imagery on the Tarot of the Saints Magician. It would have been nice to have these sections illustrated with cards from the different decks discussed.

A few reviewers have noted the relatively sparse imagery of the deck, which presumably could lead to difficulties in finding intuitional triggers while reading with it. Iíd like to raise three defenses to those criticisms. First, there are many people who manage to do just fine with decks like the Marseilles or the 1JJ Swiss, which also contain simpler symbolism in their Majors and Courts, and which are completely unillustrated in their Minors. So, although reading with Tarot of the Saints would be a different experience than reading with a deck that contains many symbols, it doesnít have to be any more difficult. Multiplicity of symbolism doesnít have to be regarded as a litmus test for Tarot decks; otherwise, Voyager would be everyoneís favorite deck.

Secondly, although Place points out in his book that the Minors should be regarded as positive or negative according to the context of the reading, it may be that readers will tend to regard most of the cards as positive because they contain pictures of Christ and saints. For example, the Six of Wands in most Waite-Smith derived decks shows a triumphant person on horseback and can equally mean victory or arrogance and overconfidence, whichever the context dictates. In the corresponding Tarot of the Saints card, which shows Christís triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the sanctity that the image holds for many readers might create a reluctance to consider the more negative possibilities. In order to maintain a full range of interpretive possibilities, readers must remain sensitive to the positive and negative shadings any card can have.

Thirdly, itís important to point out that Place discusses the question of how to increase the number of interpretive possibilities, in the context of his discussion of reversals. Place eschews reversals in favor of using three cards for each spread position. He then outlines several three- and four-position spreads with three cards in each position, and assigns one or more of six different interpretational frameworks, depending on which ways the figures are facing in a three-card set. I believe that if a reader takes the trouble to learn this system, and keeps in mind the positive/negative possibilities, they will find the lack of complex symbolism more than made up for.

I was so taken with the powerful effects of these cards that for a while I toyed with the idea of making this my main reading deck. Unfortunately, I had two problems which I could not overcome. First, the history of the Catholic Churchís treatment of the Jews throughout history has been checkered, to say the least. Perhaps it is unenlightened of me, but I find it difficult to wall off my emotions from the centuries of malice directed at Jews by the Vatican. My other problem is that, attractive as these cards are, the fact remains that many of the stories of the saints pictured revolve around asceticism, torture, death, and martyrdom. Place acknowledges this and makes a valiant and often successful effort to round out the picture by including many Gnostic, Pagan and feminine elements in the cards and the text, but the overall sense of grimness remains.

For example, in the Wheel of Fortune, St. Catherine is pictured with her wheel, and the picture is certainly consistent with the stated meaning of change and patience. But itís impossible to look at the card and not think of the accompanying story, which tells of how St. Catherine was placed on a machine consisting of four wheels rotating in different directions, the purpose being to tear her apart. Similar stories of torture and martyrdom are sprinkled throughout the deck, and those readers who were raised outside the Christian tradition (along with many who were raised in it) may find this unappealing.

Nevertheless, this deck is a superlative work of art, and Place has interesting and worthwhile ideas about Tarot history and methods of divination. I feel it would make a great addition to anyoneís collection. Of course, it would have extra appeal to those with a Catholic background, or Christians who are interested in saints.

If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.

You can read other reviews of this deck/book set here and here.

Tarot of the Saints by Robert M. Place
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN No. 1-56718-527-4

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © 2001 Llewellyn Publishing
Review © 2001 Lee Bursten
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes