Thursday, October 8, 2020

What's on the Magician's table?

1. The traditional Marseille layout

Tarot de Marseille decks stick very closely to the following layout for the Bateleur's table.

Based on Wilfried Houdouin's 2017 deck; color coding is my own

The details of each element below are taken from the Historical Tarots Gallery at the Tarot of Marseilles Heritage website. Upper row, from left to right: Pierre Madenié (1709), François Héri (1718), François Chosson (1736), Jean-Baptiste Madenié (1739), François Tourcaty (1745), and Rochus Schär (1750). Lower row: Claude Burdel (1751), Nicolas Conver (1760), Jacques Rochias (1782), Arnoux & Amphoux (1793), Suzanne Bernardin (1839), and Lequart (1890).

A: A cup with a round top, vertical sides, and a square bottom. There is very little variation in the shape. The main body of the cup is consistently yellow, and the mouth is most often red but sometimes other colors.

B: Another cup, with a different shape, wider at the top than at the bottom. It looks as if it may have a lid covering it. The color scheme is fairly consistent: yellow cup with a red mouth or lid.

C: It is not clear whether this object should be classified with the cups (A and B) or with the little round objects (D, E, and F). It is much smaller than the two cups but considerably larger than the little round things. While its basic shape is that of a circle divided into two parts, the concave curve of the dividing line suggests a very small, shallow cup, bowl, or dish. This object is most often the same color as the tabletop.

D: Three circular objects with the central one overlapping the one on the lower right (and sometimes the one on the left as well). So slavishly is this arrangement copied from deck to deck that when we see one with only two circles on this part of the table, it seems positively revolutionary! The objects are generally the color of the table. To me the layout suggests flat coins or discs rather than spherical objects. If they were balls, the lower right one (being in the foreground) would overlap the central one rather than vice versa. (On the other hand, the flat bottoms of cups A and B suggest an artist with little understanding of such things.) 

E: This element ranges from two circles side by side, to two overlapping circles, to a divided circle similar to C. The color is generally the same as the tabletop. The uncertainty as to whether this is one object or two suggests that the shapes were being copied blindly by cardmakers who did not know what they represented. My best guess is that the "original" form was a smaller circle in the northeast overlapping a larger one in the southwest, and that this was sometimes misunderstood as a single object due to the influence of the C object. As with the D objects, the direction of the overlap suggests flat rather than spherical objects.

F: Two more round items, vertically arranged. In most cases, they are touching so as to form a figure like an Arabic numeral 8, but in some decks there is a gap between them. Like the other round objects, they are generally the same color as the tabletop, but sometimes one of them is red.

G: A curved knife and its sheath, both generally the color of the table. The shape and orientation is consistent across decks. In one case the sheath has been transformed into a second knife. The knife has a very distinctive shape -- almost like a miniature scimitar with no cross-guard -- that makes me wonder what its purpose is. It certainly doesn't look much like a typical medieval pen knife, hunting knife, or dagger. The handle also seems much too small for the magician's hands, but perhaps that indicates nothing more than poor draftsmanship.

H: A bag, consistently light blue with a yellow mouth and strap. There are between one and three little round things at the mouth of the bag, which presumably represent some sort of latching mechanism. The bag is decorated with a tassel or something of that nature at the lower left corner. Sometimes one end of the strap appears to go behind the table rather than connecting to the bag.

2. Marseille variants, new and old

We have been looking at some of the oldest and most traditional Marseille decks, mostly from the 18th century, but in modern times the most influential Tarot de Marseille by far has been the 1930 Grimaud deck designed by Paul Marteau. Marteau claimed to be restoring the Nicolas Conver deck (the canonical Tarot de Marseille) but in fact introduced many innovations. Most of these are changes in the color scheme, but some are more substantial. Here is what Marteau's Bateleur has on his table:

If we ignore the colors, this is in line with Conver and the other decks we have examined, with one exception: The F element, realized as two circles in every historical deck we have looked at, has become a pair of dice.

A more recent "restored" Tarot de Marseille, also claiming the mantle of Nicolas Conver, features dice as well. This is the Jodorowsky-Camoin deck of 1997.

Note that Jodorowsky and Camoin have added a third die between the knife and its sheath, and also that the sheath has been given a fantastic new shape in defiance of tradition.

Whence these dice? As far as I am aware, there is only one early deck that unambiguously features dice, but it is one of the earliest: Jean Noblet's deck of c. 1650. Noblet's Tarot is generally very close to the Tarot de Marseille in its iconography, but not so close as to be considered a full member of that tradition. Here is his Bateleur's table:

Notice that Noblet's C element -- realized in the standard Tarot de Marseille as a circle divided into two parts -- appears here as a third and smaller cup. This suggests that what was originally a small cup was distorted over time, by a process of repeated copying without understanding, into the indistinct round object that later became standard.

Isn't it highly probably that some of the other round things on the table in the traditional Tarot de Marseille are also distortions of what were originally distinct objects? Isn't it more likely that indistinctly printed dice would degenerate into circles than that circles would be misinterpreted as dice? Marteau, Jodorowsky, and Camoin seem to have thought so. Noblet has three horizontally arranged dice where the standard Tarot de Marseille has two vertically arranged circles (the F element). Marteau apparently split the difference, keeping just two elements vertically arranged but changing them to dice. Jodorowsky and Camoin put two dice in the same position as Marteau's and add a third between the knife and the sheath, as in Noblet.

Note also that Noblet's D element -- three circles -- is somewhat different. Rather than overlapping, the three circles are more spread out but are connected by two lines. It is not at all clear what sort of object this is intended to represent. The E element -- either two circles or a single divided circle -- is absent.

Also dating to around 1650 is Jacques Viéville's card. The detail below is shown in mirror image in order to facilitate comparison with the TdM.

Here, A is a square cup, B is a round one, and C is apparently a shallow bowl or dish. D is a single round object rather than three, and E is a sort of lozenge divided horizontally into two triangles. Where the F element would be (two circles in TdM, dice in Noblet), we have two rectangular objects, a large one divided in thirds, and a smaller one not so divided. What objects were intended by these abstract geometric shapes is anyone's guess. Despite the early date for this card, it had apparently already been through several generations of ignorant miscopying.

The lozenge shape in Viéville is perhaps historically related to the diagonal lines connecting the circles in Noblet.

A few other not-quite-standard representatives of the greater Marseille tradition also deserve our attention. The 1780 deck of Ignaz Krebs follows Noblet in some ways.

As in Noblet, the D element appears as three non-overlapping circles, and the E element is absent. Instead of Noblet's dice, though, we have between the knife and the sheath a single rectangle with six pip-marks on it. To me this is further confirmation that the "original" design featured dice, since one could imagine dice being incorrectly copied either as circles (as in the mainstream TdM) or as the domino-like object in Krebs.

Jean-Pierre Payen's 1713 deck (a TdM "Type I" deck, as opposed to the mainstream "Type II") has a fairly standard Bateleur (or, rather, "Branchus," that being the anomalous title given to this card) but is interesting because its D element (three round objects) looks more unambiguously like coins rather than balls.

3. Magician's tables before the Tarot de Marseille

The earliest surviving Tarot cards are the Visconti-Sforza cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo. Bembo's magician has objects on his table similar to those in the TdM but not the same. There is a cup (only one), a knife (but no sheath), and two small round objects of uncertain identity.

The large white object which takes the place of the TdM Bateleur's bag has been variously interpreted, but, as I have explained elsewhere, I find Michael Pearce's case that it is a sea sponge to be completely convincing. Dr. Pearce found several pictures by Bembo depicting holy relics, among them the sponge on a stalk of hyssop which was used to give vinegar to the Crucified, and the sponge very closely resemble's the Magician's white object.

Three sponges (on hyssop stalks) by Bonifacio Bembo

This crucial discovery allows Pearce to reveal the true identity of Bembo's "magician": He is a scribe or writer. His "wand" is actually a reed pen (he holds it like a pen, and nibs are visible if you look closely), the knife is a pen knife, and the cup and other yellow objects are receptacles for ink. Sponges were used in the past for erasing and for cleaning pens; in support of this, Pearce shows an illustration from a 15th-century Decameron which depicts a writer with pen, pen knife, inkwell, and sponge.

The Cary sheet (c. 1550), a sheet of uncut Tarot cards from Milan, shows a broadly Marseille-like assortment of objects on the Magician's table, but the image is too unclear for them to be identified with any confidence. There are two long objects that may be a knife and a sheath, a total of six roundish things, and two cups on the table, with a third in the Magician's right hand. This syncs up pretty well with the Noblet card, which also has three cups, a knife and a sheath, and a total of six small objects (three dice and three round things).

While it is not a Tarot card, Hieronymus Bosch's 1502 painting The Conjurer should also be mentioned here, chiefly because of its similarity to the Cary sheet.

Bosch's Conjurer and the Cary sheet Magician wear similar headgear, and the Cary sheet may even show some sort of bag or basket dangling from the Magician's waist or wrist. In both depictions, the cups on the table are apparently inverted, narrow end up. Finally, and to me most evocatively, the roughly egg-shaped object at the northeast end of the table on the Cary sheet closely resembles the little frog at the west end of Bosch's table. (A second frog is emerging from the mouth of one of the spectators.)

See this post for more on echoes of Bosch in the Tarot.

4. Wirth and Waite

No overview of the Magician's table would be complete without mentioning the modern, post-Marseille standard, which I believe originated with Oswald Wirth. Although I find it a bit gauche and uninteresting, I feel I ought to give it a few lines.

It's a pretty obvious move to associate the Magician's objects with the four suits of the Tarot. The Magician holds a wand, and on his table are cups, a knife suggesting the suit of Swords, and round objects that might be coins. Oswald Wirth made this explicit.

All the clutter has been eliminated, and there are now only three objects on the table: a cup (not the simple cups of the TdM Bateleur, but a chalice or goblet as in the suit of Cups), a full-size sword, and a giant "coin" the size of a Frisbee (clearly a symbolic representation of the suit of Coins, not an actual piece of currency). The wand in the Magician's hand has been enlarged considerably, too, making it more like the cudgels and scepters in the suit of Bastons than like an actual magician's wand.

A. E. Waite, in his hugely influential Rider-Waite deck, takes Wirth's idea a step further. Apparently wanting to include a large "wand" suggestive of the suit, but without making his Magician look like a baton-twirling drum major, he put two wands on his card: a small one in the Magician's hand, and a large cudgel on the table. (The giant coin is now a "pentacle," that being Waite's take on this suit.)

Waite lived before subways were common.

All in all, I greatly prefer the traditional Bateleur's evocative hodgepodge of gewgaws to the cut-and-dried symbolism of Wirth and Waite.


Bruce Charlton said...

Unfortunately; I find the earliest Tarot to be so appallingly badly-drawn, coloured and engraved as to be intolerable! They seem utterly to lack style and charm, to my eye. What a shame they weren't done by someone like the illustrator of the Luttrell Psalter.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Well, keep in mind that we are looking at playing cards for use in gambling, nothing that was ever intended to be framed and hung up in a gallery. The Visconti-Sforza cards, hand-painted by an actual artist, a very much the exception to the rule.

The only artist of genius who has ever attempted a Tarot deck was the evil genius Salvador Dalí, and his cards are complete crap.

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