A Thought on the Cardinal Virtues in the Tarot Cards

featuring the Bible of Notger


Koretaka Eguchi

The earliest known tarot decks are "Visconti-Sforza"s, hand-painted in early fifteenth century. But these splendid pieces of fine art were minorities because of their artistic quality; such extavagant decks were exclusively for the aristocratic pastime in a palace or a castle. The streets and taverns must have been filled with cheaper, vulgar woodprinted decks imported from Germany or elsewhere, as we can see in the "Magistracy of Venice, 1441"(Kaplan, Encycropedia of Tarot", I, p.22). The magistracy issued an order forbidding the introduction of foreign manufactured printed colored figures. Kaplan suggested this order was to protect domestic card makers from German rivals and I have no reason to doubt him.

Of course we want to see those imported German decks and "printed colored figures" at that time, and many of us searching them all around the world in vain. Those cheap, vulger cards were just discarded when worn out, leaving no trace. The quality of card paper used those days was presumably low, and might have not survived the centuries.

But if we assume that the "printed colured figures" were once "religious cuts and pictures of saints, produced in the convents, and sold at the various shrines to the pilgrims"(Arthur Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching, Dover, New York, p.19), then at least we could know the direction we must go--the religious articrafts of medieval North Europe.

And I found a very interesting thing in Liege, Belgium --

The Bible of Notger

 The above is the Bible of Notger now in the custody of Curtius Museum, Liege. The ivory plaque in the center was made in circa 990 AD, while enamel parts in 1170. This masterpiece of Meuse art was commissioned by the Prince-Bishop of Notger who governed the Liege area latter half of 10th century; he was known as a connoisseur of fine arts and crafts.

 Now let's see the details --

1 Ivory

2 Fortitude

3 Justice

4 Temperance

5 The River

1 Ivory Plaque

 size : 190*110mm. Typical image of Christ Triumphant.

Large pins at four corners make attaching/dettaching easier, and there must have been other same-size plaques.

2 Fortitude

 A figure is holding lion's mouth. Apparently an angel judging from the nimbus and wings behind his head and shoulders. The word "FORTITVDO" is engraved.

3 Justice

 Typical presentation of Justice with a balance.
Nimbus and wings. Engraved "IVSTITIA".

4 Temperance

 Angelic figure with two cups. Engraved "TEMPERANTIA".

5 Personification of the Tigris

 The stream flowing out of the vase symbolizes the river. Engraved "TIGRIS"

The other three personifications are -- upper left PISON, upper right GEON, lower right EVRATES".

So much for the details. True, the ivory plaque has considerable similarity with the Atu XXI and much attention should be paid to , but I see as much importance in the enamel parts. I believe this bible is one of the earliest examples of depicting Cardinal Virtues as we see them in the Tarot Cards. As Helen North writes in The Dictionary of the History of Thoughts --

"In the eleventh and twelfth centuries several innovations occur. The virtues are illustrated in important devotional treatises and theological tracts, as well as deluxe Gospel-books, sacramentaries, lectionaries, and the like. They also appear on an infinite variety of small objects, usually religious in nature: portable altars, shrines, reliquaries, tabernacles, book-covers, candlesticks, and fonts (Katzenellenbogen, 1964). New symbolic objects and animals are now added to the repertory of the artist in France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Prudence may have a serpent or a dove; Fortitude may tear apart the jaws of a lion; Justice may hold a sword, a plumbline, or a set square; and Temperance may have a spray of flowers, a sheathed sword, or (most often) two vessels, with which she mixes water and wine, a visual reminder of the rootmeaning of temperare."
quotes from The Dictionaly of the HIstory of Thoughts

First of alll, we see the three Cardinal Virtues in the angelic presentation. And the personifications of four Edenic rivers in the corners correspond to the four Virtues. But the correspondence of tetrad fails when it comes to the Angels, of whom the Bible gives only three names, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. That the angelic figures of Virtues are based on those Angels is shown by the word "Tigris", which appears only in Daniel 10.4 and Tobias 6.1. (usual name for the Edenic river is Heddikel). Both Books tell much about the Angels, indeed the main sources for their informations.

Gabriel corresponds to Fortitude as his name shows -- GBR-AL, Fortitudo Dei. Perhaps this was the main motivation for making Virtue-Angel association. And here he is depicted as the angel who "hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me" (Dan.6.22).

Michael corresponds to Justice -- the balance is his attribute.

Raphael corresponds to Temperance accordingly.

The space above the plaque shows the engraved alpha and omega. The unknown craftman of this Bible could have contrived to put the Prudence into the space but he didin't. The reason is not clear, but basically the Prudence is supposed to be very human virtue and not appropriate for the angelic. And I believe here is some ingenuity; the undepicted Prudence is the Bible itself, or a person or "you" who read the Bible.

Now, the Tarot Cards. As we all know, Temperance of the Tarot of Marsaille has wings. But older cards of Temperance such as Viscontis, or the picture from Rosenwald sheet were depicted as the traditional throned figure without wings. Tarocchi of Mantegna gives us a philosophical figure of Virtues, not angelic. Minchiates depict no angelic Virtues. Tarocchini de Bologna, of Mittelli, and Sicilliano -- no wings.

My guess is as follows -- the combination of three Angels and three Virtues became a convention among the ivory-carvers and enamel-makers of the Meuse area of 11th century: and woodcutters and the engravers of later periods inherited the convention, which they utilized in making cheap religious cuts and prints. After the introduction of the playing cards into Europe, a new type of card game named "taro" or "tarocchi" was invented. The game required fourteen or more trumps and the woodcutter-turned-cardmakers of the Meuse area did not hesitate in converting religious prints into a gaming device. And the procedure was easy enough, because the playing cards and religious cuts were often made by same craftmen in same places. These materials were objects of "Magistracy of Venice, 1441". The Italian cardmakers utilized the some of the Muese images such as Tower and Devil(1), but for the Cardinal Virtues they preferred the philosophical presentation to the angelic ones because it was the Renaissance day.

And seventeenth century when the Renaissance images became obsolete, cardmakers turned their eyes to the older iconography again to pick up angelic images. Then Temperance had wings.

So it is no wonder some students thought that the wings were an error of cardmakers who took a part of chair for them. But the Angelic Virtues of the Bible of Notger of 11th century were a deliberate imaging, not an error. In this respect we could make a hypothesis that the part of imagery of Marsaille Tarot is older than that of Visconti Sforzas or Minchiates.

1 We can regard the Tower and the Devil cards as supplementaries to the Virtues. The God uses Gabriel as an agent of the divine power of destruction. And the destroyed objects were either the tower of Babel, that of Barbara, or the wall of Jericho ("Charles VI"). Fortitude who breaks a column suggests the same. And the Devil is of course the indispensable attribute to Michael.