The Throne and the World

lemonde

The World card from the Tarot de Marseille (Jodorowsky-Camoin version)

The card known as Le Monde (The World) is surely one of the most enigmatic in the Tarot de Marseille. It’s certainly not the sort of image most people would come up with if asked to “draw a picture of the world.” A naked woman, holding a small bottle and a wand, dances in the center of an elliptical wreath, surrounded by the four creatures known collectively as the Tetramorph.

I am indebted to Whitley Strieber for drawing my attention to similarities between the World card and an 11th-century sculpture in the ambulatory of the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. Strieber erroneously referred to the latter as a sculpture “of the 21st card in the Major Arcana, known as the World. . . . complete in every detail . . . not an ‘early’ card, but a fully evolved image” (The Key, p. 21). It certainly is not that, as it differs from the Tarot card in some very important ways, but the connection between the two is undeniable, and following up the lead has proved fruitful. My current understanding of the “genealogy” of the World card is as follows:

  1. Ezekiel’s visions of the Merkabah and the cherubim
  2. John’s vision of the divine throne
  3. The traditional “Maiestas Domini” motif in Christian iconography
  4. The specific Maiestas Domini sculpture found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse
  5. The World card of the Tarot de Marseille

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An overview of the image’s development

1. The Book of Ezekiel opens (Chapters 1-3) with a vision of four “living creatures,” each with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. The creatures have four wings each and are accompanied by enormous wheels that are “full of eyes.” The creatures are “like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps . . . and out of the fire went forth lightning.” Above their heads is a “firmament” resembling “the terrible crystal,” above which is a man seated on a throne. Both the man and the throne resemble gemstones, and they are surrounded by rainbow-like radiance identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The man on the throne (who apparently represents the Lord himself) gives Ezekiel a “roll of a book . . . written within and without,” unrolls it, and has him eat it. Chapter 10 of Ezekiel repeats much of this material, describing again the throne, the firmament, the wheels, and the four creatures, which are here identified as “cherubim.” Because of the combination of throne and wheels, these visions are generally referred to by the Hebrew term Merkabah, meaning “chariot.”

2. In Chapters 4-5 of Revelation, John recounts his own vision of the divine throne, drawing heavily on Ezekiel’s imagery. Again we have the jewel-like man seated on his throne, surrounded by four “beasts” obviously patterned after Ezekiel’s cherubim. They have the same four faces (though they have only face each) and have many wings (six each rather than four, due to the influence of Isaiah). Ezekiel’s wheels do not put in an appearance, so the beasts themselves are “full of eyes.” There are “lamps of fire” and lightning. Ezekiel’s crystalline firmament is there (“a sea of glass like unto crystal”), as is his rainbow. The man on the throne also has a scroll or “book, written within and on the backside.” Elsewhere in Revelation, John is even given a book to eat, as Ezekiel was, but this book is not that book. The book held by the man on the throne is sealed with the famous seven seals, and no one can open them but “the lamb that was slain,” who later appears before the throne to do just that.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns before the Divine Throne, William Blake’s picture of the scene described in Revelation 4-5.

3. One of the very oldest themes in Christian art, supposed to be older even than the crucifix, is the one known as Maiestas Domini, Christ in Majesty, or Christ in Glory. It portrays Jesus Christ, usually with a cruciform halo, sitting on a throne and holding a book in one hand. He is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo (like the central section of a two-set Venn diagram), around which are arranged John’s four living creatures, usually with wings (one pair each) and halos, often holding books of their own. Although it has been simplified considerably (fewer eyes and flaming lamps and so on), this iconic image is obviously based on Revelation 4-5 — this despite the fact that in John’s vision Christ is represented by the lamb that was slain, not by the one seated on the throne.

codex bruchsal

A typical example of the “Maiestas Domini,” from the 13th-century Codex Bruchsal

4. One Maiestas Domini of particular interest to us is the one found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. While it is a typical example of the genre in most respects, the fact that it portrays a beardless (and thus potentially sexually ambiguous) Christ, and that it had been on display in Occitania for some four centuries when the first Tarot de Marseille appeared, makes it a possible “missing link” between the traditional Maiestas Domini and the female figure portrayed on the World card.

sernin2

11th-century Romanesque marble sculpture of Christ in Glory, attributed to Bernardus Geluduinus, from the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse

5. With the World card of the Tarot de Marseille, the image has been changed radically. What was once a portrayal of the Lord on his throne now includes neither Lord nor throne, a naked dancer having taken their place. However, the frame — mandorla and tetramorph — remains essentially unchanged, leaving little room for doubt that the World image is a direct descendant of Christ in Glory.

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The four living creatures

Commentators on the Tarot almost invariably speak of the four living creatures as being the four constituent animals of the Sphinx, but the fact is that, while we may find two or three of the four creatures combined in such mythical creatures as the sphinx, the griffin, and the lamassu, the complete tetramorph is to be found only in Ezekiel and those influenced by him.  What might that particular combination of creatures have meant to the prophet? For starters, it very like symbolizes, by means of four representative members, both the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Ezekiel, as an Israelite living in Babylon, would have been familiar with both.)

As described in Numbers 2-3, the 12 tribes of Israel were arranged around the Tabernacle in four camps, each named for one of its constituent tribes: Ephraim in the west, Reuben in the south, Judah in the east, and Dan in the north. As for Ezekiel’s creatures, “they four had the face of a man [in the front], and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle [in the back]” (Ezekiel 1:10; the words in brackets are implied by the Hebrew and are included in many modern translations). Given that Judah and Ephraim are traditionally symbolized by the lion and the bull, respectively (see Genesis 49:9, Deuteronomy 33:17), we can map the creatures to the tribes as follows.

tribes

But why should Reuben and Dan be represented by a man and an eagle? To answer that, it is necessary to add a third foursome to the mapping: the so-called “fixed signs” of the zodiac, representing the four quarters of the sky: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. Taurus and Leo are self-explanatory. Aquarius (a man pouring water) corresponds to Reuben, of whom it was said, “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel” (Genesis 49:4).

Dan is a bit more complicated. Although the zodiac signs are named for constellations, each is actually a 30° section of the sky containing other constellations in addition to the one  for which it is named. Scorpio covers 210°–240° ecliptic longitude, which means that both Altair and Alpha Serpentis (the chief stars in the constellations of the Eagle and Serpent, respectively) fall within its purview. Thus, the eagle or the serpent can be made to stand in for the scorpion. Of Dan, it was said, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (Genesis 49: 17); therefore Dan = serpent = Scorpio = eagle. The scorpion was apparently considered too obnoxious a creature to be represented among the cherubim, and the same may have been true of the serpent (although etymology suggests that the seraphim of Isaiah were winged serpents). Interestingly, just as Dan’s traditional symbol is excluded from the tetramorph, Dan is also the only tribe not included among the 144,000 sealed in Revelation 7:3-8.

The only problem with this proposed mapping is that, while the arrangement of the tribal camps around the Tabernacle matches the orientation of the cherubim’s faces, neither matches the layout of the zodiac, where Aquarius is opposite Leo and Taurus is opposite Scorpio. However, Revelation lists the creatures in an order consistent with the zodiac (counting clockwise from Leo), and the World card of the Tarot perfectly matches the conventional orientation of the zodiac.

lemondezodiac

Besides the tribes of Israel and the signs of the zodiac, Christian tradition decided pretty early on that the living creatures represented Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which is why Maiestas Domini art often portrays each creature holding a book representing its respective Gospel. (These books don’t appear on the World card, but they did somehow find their way onto the Rider-Waite version of the Wheel of Fortune!) Ezekiel’s original vision obviously had no reference to the authors of the New Testament, but that is no objection to this interpretation. As discussed in my post on the Magician, we are operating on the assumption that the oldest meaning of a symbol is not necessarily the truest, and that each step in a symbol’s development, including even apparent errors, is potentially meaningful. I myself have nothing very deep to say about the distinguishing characteristics of each Gospel and how they correspond to those of each living creature, but I certainly do not dismiss the idea out of hand.

Correspondences with other foursomes readily suggest themselves, though which mappings are “correct” is often a matter for debate. For example, Valentin Tomberg in his Meditations on the Tarot quotes Paul Carton as follows:

Ancient Wisdom drew from the enigma of the Sphinx [sic] the four fundamental rules of human conduct: to know with the intelligence of the human brain; to will with the strength of the lion; to dare or to elevate oneself with the audacious power of the wings of the eagle; to be silent with the massive and concentrated force of the bull.

However, in Tomberg’s own commentary on the four creatures, he differs from Carton in associating the lion with to dare and the eagle with to will, and both Carton and Tomberg contradict Eliphas Lévi — who was apparently the originator of this list of the “Four Powers of the Sphinx”! After thinking about it, I would propose a different mapping still.

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To be silent corresponds to the bull; on this point only I agree with Carton. And Tomberg is right that the lion symbolizes the courage implied by to dare in a way that the eagle simply cannot. (Can you imagine a “Richard Cœur d’Aigle”?) The remaining two rules lead to a quandary, since man is unique both in his power of reason or intelligence and in his free will. However, I think that the eagle, while not in fact a very intelligent animal, can at least symbolize knowledge — due to its “eagle eye”; its objective, detached “bird’s-eye view” of things; and the fact that its astrological alter ego is none other than the classical symbol of knowledge, wisdom, and cunning: the serpent. To will, then, is the power proper to man, a power for which no mere animal can be even an adequate allegory.

The bull and the eagle are situated opposite one another in the zodiac, and Lévi and Tomberg agree in seeing them as contrasting symbols of depth and height. “His the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights,” says Lévi, “his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths.” Tomberg says,

The Bull is the symbol of the instinct of productive concentration. It underlies the propensity to deep meditation. . . . It is the Bull in this sense which has given rise to the cult of the sacred Cow (the female aspect of the Bull) in India. The worship of the cow in India is simply a popular counterpart to the Hindu propensity for meditation.

Regarding to be silent, Tomberg has this to say:

The precept “to be silent” is not, as many authors interpret it, solely a rule of prudence, but it is moreover a practical method of transforming this narrowing and blinkering instinct into a propensity towards depth and, correspondingly, an aversion towards all that is of a superficial nature.

The meaning of the bull — silence, meditation, “furrowing the depths” — is aptly summarized in these lines from Robert Frost.

Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.

The four cardinal virtues, first listed in Plato’s Republic and later elaborated by later Stoic and Christian thinkers, can also be mapped to the living creatures. Fortitude or courage, the special virtue of the warrior class, corresponds to the lion. Prudence or wisdom, the virtue proper to the rulers, is represented by the eagle or serpent. (The eagle appears on the Empress and Emperor cards as a symbol of rule.) Temperance or self-control, of which being silent is an instance, belongs to the bull. Justice, as the virtue transcending and ruling the others, corresponds to the man.

Prolonged meditation on the four living creatures attracts the attention of the synchronicity fairies. While thus absorbed, I looked up and happened to notice something that familiarity had long since rendered effectively invisible: an Indian wall hanging depicting the god Shiva seated on a tiger pelt, the serpent king Vasuki draped around his neck, Nandi the bull standing behind him, and the Ganges issuing as a spout of water from the top of his head. Accepting the tiger as a reasonable proxy for the lion, and the serpent as the alter ego of the eagle (and further noting the connection between Vasuki and the eagle Garuda), are these not the four living creatures? Shiva himself appears not only as a man, but specifically as Aquarius: a man pouring forth a stream of water! And of course, one of the most familiar depictions of Shiva is as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer surrounded by a ring of flames, an image whose similarity to the World card should have been obvious, though I had not made the connection before.

shiva

Shiva as part of a tetramorph-like image, and as the cosmic dancer

Further meditation brought to mind the legend of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, as told in the Book of Daniel. It was said of the king, “Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him” (Daniel 4:16), upon which he “was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, . . . till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). A later vision by Daniel apparently represents the king’s subsequent return to sanity: “The first [beast I saw] was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it” (Daniel 7:4). Here again are the four living creatures. Immediately after checking these references in the Bible, I happened to open up Colin Wilson’s book The Occult, which I was reading for the first time, and found: “The Chaldeans were traditionally the founders of astronomy and astrology; Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were Chaldean kings.” Any sort of reference to Nebuchadnezzar would have been an impressive enough coincidence, but here he is mentioned specifically in connection with the origins of the zodiac, the ultimate source of the tetramorph!

nebuchadnezzar

An illustration from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, depicting Nebuchadnezzar

Incidentally, Wilson mentions the Chaldeans by way of introducing the Epic of Gilgamesh — in which (though Wilson doesn’t mention it) we also find the four living creatures, combined in the person of the monster Humbaba (a humanoid giant with a lion’s face, bull’s horns, and vulture’s talons).

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The rainbow, the mandorla, and the wreath

In Ezekiel’s vision, he describes rainbow-like radiance around the enthroned figure.

And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:27-28).

In John’s vision, “there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4:3), a rather confusing description. The only way in which something could be specifically “like unto an emerald” (as opposed to any other precious stone) would be in its bright green color, so it must be “a rainbow” by virtue of its shape — not a spectrum, but an arc.

For the biblical significance of the rainbow, the obvious place to start is the story of Noah.

And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth (Genesis 9:8-13).

What immediately jumps out at me about this passage is that God establishes his covenant not only with Noah, but with four classes of creatures: men, birds, livestock, and wild beasts — precisely the four classes represented by the man, eagle, bull, and lion. Somehow I had never noticed this before, nor the arresting idea that birds, beasts, and livestock are capable of entering into a covenant with God! This is consistent with the anti-anthropocentric message implied by the tetramorph: man, special as he may be, is still but one living creature among others, all of which are known and loved by God. Joseph Smith commented on some parts of John’s Revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 77, the chapter heading of which summarizes his commentary on the four living creatures as follows: “Beasts have spirits and will dwell in eternal felicity.”

In Maiestas Domini iconography, the figure of Christ is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo, which I suggest is derived from the smaragdine “rainbow” of Revelation (although it could also be a nod to Ezekiel’s wheels, I suppose). The mandorla is the intersection of two circles — the central portion of a two-set Venn diagram — and one obvious interpretation is that it represents Christ as the intersection of the divine and human worlds. Its connection with the “Jesus fish,” another ancient Christian symbol, is also obvious. Many have also interpreted the mandorla as a yonic symbol, so Christ in a mandorla could represent his birth into the world — either his first or, more likely given the Apocalyptic context, second coming.

In the World card, we find the mandorla — a sharply defined geometric shape — replaced with a wreath of leaves of the same general shape. This wreath of vegetation is perhaps prefigured by the green rainbow of Revelation — though, in point of fact, traditional tarot decks rarely make the wreath green; it is typically azure, azure-and-gold, or red-yellow-and-blue (this last color scheme perhaps harking back to its original character as a rainbow).

(I perhaps have personal reasons for wanting to find an implicit rainbow in the World card. In my very early childhood my thinking was mostly visual, and abstract words generally each had a specific mental picture associated with them. I remember that I often used to pray “Thank you for the world,” and that the image that always accompanied the word world was a rainbow.)

The main difference between a wreath and a rainbow or mandorla is that a wreath is organic, alive — and indeed is a conventional symbol of eternal life. Wreaths are also traditional decorations associated with Advent and Christmas and so could, like the yonic mandorla, represent the birth of Christ — except that on the World card Christ is conspicuously absent, having been replaced by a naked woman! This brings us to the central question of the World card: What is to be made of the changing identity of the central figure?

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Christ on his Father’s throne

In Ezekiel, it is strongly implied that the figure is the Lord (or, rather, represents the Lord; Ezekiel is careful to describe everything he sees as mere “likeness” and “appearance”). He is seated on a throne which is traditionally referred to as a chariot (merkabah) because it has wheels. He gives Ezekiel a “book” (scroll), but it is not clear that he actually holds it in his hand. (The enthroned figure says to Ezekiel, “Eat that I give thee,” and then Ezekiel reports “And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein.” This implies a disembodied hand “sent” by the Lord, not one of his own hands.) The enthroned figure unrolls the scroll, and “it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In Revelation, the figure still sits on a throne, though there are no longer any wheels. The enthroned figure is definitely not Christ (because Christ later appears before the throne as a separate figure, “the lamb that was slain”) and so presumably represents the Father. He holds a “book” (still a scroll) in his right hand but does not unroll it because it is sealed. Much is made of the Lamb’s gradually unsealing the scroll, one seal at a time — but when the last seal is opened, we are never told that anyone unrolls the scroll or reads it, or what is written in it. Instead, the opening of each seal is accompanied by visions; if these visions represent the contents of the book, we can conclude that it, too, contains “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In the Maiestas Domini, the enthroned figure is now Christ rather than the Father, and, unlike the figure in revelation, he invariably holds the book in his left hand and raises his right hand in benediction. The book is now a codex rather than a scroll, and it is most often shown open, with something written in it. What is written in the book varies, but it is no longer a message of woe. The book might read, for example, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I am the first and the last and he that liveth,” or simply the two letters alpha and omega — but perhaps the most relevant variant for our purposes is: “I am the light of the world.”

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12th-century Maiestas Domini mural in Sant Climent de Taüll, Catalonia. Christ’s book reads “Ego sum lux mundi” — “I am the light of the world.” Note also that the mandorla here is pretty clearly a rainbow.

luxmundi2

Detail of a mural in the 12th-century Duomo di Monreale, Sicily. The left page reads, with lots of scribal abbreviations, “Ego sum lux mundi qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris” (“I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness”), and the right has the same text in the original Greek.

“I am the light of the world” — this is perhaps a hint as to how “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel) came to develop into an image called simply “The World.”

The question remains: Why was this standard image of “Christ in Majesty” so closely based on John’s vision of God the Father — a vision in which Christ appears as a seven-eyed, seven-horned sacrificial lamb rather than as the one on the throne?

In Revelation 3:22, Christ says, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” The implication is that God’s throne is not the exclusive property of God himself. Christ overcame, and we see him seated there in majesty. Nor should we necessarily think it blasphemous to see other figures in the same position — a position open to all who “overcome.” While Christ did say “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), it is interesting to note that he is also on record as saying “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

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The beardless Christ

I have mentioned the beardless Christ portrayed in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse as a possible intermediary step in the evolution from the traditional Maiestas Domini to the World card of the Tarot. Caravaggio also portrayed a beardless Christ in the 1601 version of his Supper at Emmaus. In fact, mutatis mutandis, Caravaggio’s Christ looks almost exactly like the one in Toulouse. Even the position of his hands, while portrayed naturalistically, echoes the iconic mano pantea gesture of benediction.

sernin-emmaus

Christ as portrayed by Bernardus Geluduinus in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse (left) and by Caravaggio in the 1601 version of Supper at Emmaus (right).

Of course Caravaggio’s work is too late to have been an influence on the Tarot de Marseille, but his painting’s striking similarity to the Toulouse sculpture may give us a clue as to how to interpret the latter.

Supper at Emmaus represents a scene from Luke 24. After Christ’s resurrection, two of his disciples meet him on the road, “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:16). They walk along, discussing the scriptures, and invite him to stay for dinner. Finally, “as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). The two disciples immediately go to Jerusalem to report this manifestation to the eleven apostles. “And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you” (Luke 24:35-36).

“Peace be unto you” (“Pax vobis,” the phrase used in the Vulgate translation of Luke 24:36) is precisely what is written in the book held by Christ in the Toulouse sculpture. Having looked at dozens of different examples of the Maiestas Domini motif, I have not found any others that put that particular phrase in the book. It appears that in this, as in Christ’s beardlessness, the Toulouse sculpture is, if probably not unique, at least very unusual.

Other elements of the Luke 24 story also tie into the Maiestas Domini theme. On the road to Emmaus, Christ, still incognito, says to the two disciples, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). The standard French term for the Maiestas Domini is le Christ en gloire. Later, after appearing and saying “Peace be unto you,” “he lifted up his hands, and blessed them” (Luke 24:50), recalling the gesture of benediction seen in the Maiestas Domini.

Why did the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize their Master at once? Valentin Tomberg offers what strikes me as a plausible explanation.

But there is one thing, a specific feature, which the Gospel account mentions several times: that the risen Christ was difficult to recognise — that he hardly resembled the Master that the disciples and women knew so well. Thus, Mary Magdalena took him to be the gardener; the two disciples on the way to Emmaus only recognised him at the moment that he broke the bread; the disciples did not recognise his appearance by the sea of Tiberias — and it was only after he had spoken that John, initially alone, recognised him and said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” . . . Why was the risen Jesus Christ difficult to recognise? Because he was without age. . . . Just as he was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, where he conversed with Moses and Elijah, so was he transfigured at his resurrection. The resurrected One was not only the synthesis of life and death, but also the synthesis of youth and old age. For this reason it was difficult for those who knew him between the ages of thirty and thirty-three to recognise him: at one time he appeared older to them, at another time younger than when they had known him.

The Toulouse sculpture, like the Caravaggio painting, portrays the resurrected Christ. As Christ’s beard serves both to make him instantly recognizable and to mark him as a man of mature years, omitting it is an effective way of depicting the different-looking, ageless Christ described in the Gospels.

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From Christ to the World

Toulouse is not that far from Marseille, and it seems likely to me that the long-haired, beardless Christ displayed there had some influence on the development of the Tarot image, with its female figure in the place of Christ. It seems extremely unlikely that any medieval European could simply have mistaken it for a sculpture of a woman. It so obviously represents Christ, and no one could possibly be ignorant of the fact that Christ is male. But perhaps it stimulated the thought that, just as the resurrected Christ is ageless, “he” should perhaps be sexless as well. Had he not said that “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30)? Some Tarot de Marseille decks, such as that of Jean-Pierre Payen (Avignon, 1713), do show a sexually ambiguous figure, which may have evolved into the pretty clearly female one seen in most Marseille decks. (Sexual ambiguity would have been easier to maintain if the figure were not portrayed as naked, and possible meanings of this nudity will be discussed in due course.)

An interesting parallel case, in which a male religious figure evolved into a female one, can be seen in the case of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an important Buddhist figure whom I first encountered in his original masculine form when I was studying Central Asian art.

avalokiteshvara

1st-century Afghan sculpture of a mustached Avalokiteshvara. He is more often depicted as clean-shaven.

My Buddhist education having been pretty much limited to that course in Central Asian art, I had no idea until I moved to Taiwan that this same Avalokiteshvara is widely revered in Chinese culture — where “he” is known as Guanyin (a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit name), the Goddess of Mercy, having been thought of as female since the 12th century or so. (The male version of Avalokiteshvara is still very much alive, supposedly incarnate in the Dalai Lama.) Guanyin is typically portrayed holding a willow branch (柳枝) and a vase of pure water (淨瓶).

guanyin

Chinese depiction of Guanyin with a willow branch and a vase of water

The willow wand and the vase are what really caught my attention, because they correspond so closely to the wand and phial held by the figure in the World card. They belong specifically to the female Guanyin; such objects never feature in masculine depictions of Avalokiteshvara. Similarly, the male Christ in Majesty invariably holds a book in one hand and raises the other in benediction; it is only his female relative in the Tarot that bears the wand and phial.

My attempts to discover the deeper meaning of Guanyin’s wand and vase have so far been less than satisfying. This site (in Chinese) offers the rather uninspiring explanation that they represent the tools early Buddhists used for brushing their teeth (!), attention to personal hygiene being one of things that set them apart from the adherents of various non-Buddhist ascetic movements. The imagination rebels at the idea of the Goddess of Mercy holding the equivalent of a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, but there it is. (As I have mentioned elsewhere, many of the symbols of the Tarot have similarly prosaic origins, having evolved only gradually into something deeper. The Tarot suit of wands evolved from the Mamluk suit of polo sticks, for example; is a toothbrush wand any worse?) A typical modern interpretation is that the vase contains the water of life, and that the willow branch is used for sprinkling it.

Direct Chinese Buddhist influence in medieval Occitania would seem to be out of the question, so the parallels between Gaunyin and the World figure can only be considered a remarkable case of convergent evolution or “reincarnation” (like that which led the rebirth among British magicians of the Chinese Wenchang pen, as described here). It is as if some occult force were causing such Eastern figures as Guanyin and Shiva Nataraja to “come through” into the Tarot without the conscious intention of the medieval Christians who designed the cards.

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But, to come back to the point, what exactly is to be made of a naked dancing woman taking the place traditionally occupied by God or Christ? One possibility is to see it as a blasphemy pure and simple, and the woman as the whore of Babylon, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. The image is called “The World” — a term which is often used in scripture in reference to human wickedness. “The world” hates Jesus, and its works are evil (John 7:7). Pure religion is to keep oneself “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) The destruction of the wicked at Christ’s second coming is “the end of the world.”

I find this interpretation unlikely for several reasons. For one thing, the World card occurs in the Tarot immediately after the last judgment which is “the end of the world,” so it can hardly represent the world in that sense — or if it did, we would expect it to show its punishment or destruction. More importantly, though, the imagery of the card simply has nothing of the demonic about it. The woman, though naked, does not look at all whorish, and the living creatures around her appear genuinely angelic and not at all outraged by her presence. This is not some Satanic parody of the divine glory; it is the genuine article.

In John’s vision of the throne, the four living creatures have six wings (rather than four as in Ezekiel) and say, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” — a clear allusion to the seraphim of Isaiah, who also have six wings and stand before the throne of God, and who say “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The World in Glory, then, would appear to be as legitimate a subject as Christ in Glory. Nor is this limited to the physical earth or Nature. Christ said, “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17), with clear reference to the world of human beings. Elsewhere in the same Gospel, he says to his disciples, “Where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3), and I have already quoted the passage from Revelation to the effect that those who overcome may sit on God’s own throne just as Christ has done — may enter heaven not as subjects, but as kings, with the same glory that Christ himself enjoys.

Assuming, then, that the central figure of the World card may represent redeemed Nature, redeemed Man, or both, the questions remain: Why is she specifically represented as a naked woman, dancing, and holding a wand and phial?

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If the figure represents Nature or Earth, then the portrayal as female is conventional and needs no explanation. This thought led me to search for Classical depictions of Gaia to see whether or not she was conventionally portrayed in the nude, and serendipity threw this my way:

aion

3rd-century Roman floor mosaic from Sentinum, depicting Aion and Tellus, with children representing the four seasons

The reclining woman is indeed Gaia’s Roman counterpart Tellus, and she is indeed portrayed mostly nude — but what really caught my attention was the male figure, with the zodiac around him (in the form, apparently, of what we would now call a Möbius strip!). Aquarius and Scorpio are even in same positions here as in the World card, though the other signs are not.

(This is a very strange zodiac, in fact. On the left we can clearly see the sequence Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo (?), Virgo (?) — skipping Aries! On the right, only Scorpio is clearly identifiable, but it certainly looks like the sequence is Scorpio, Libra, Sagittarius, and then a second Leo. Scorpio should be between Libra and Sagittarius, of course. Presumably one of these 12 signs is meant to be Aries, but I can’t say which; all of the quadrupeds have long tails, so none of them looks like it might be a ram.)

This male figure represents, I am told, Aion — a deity summarized by Wikipedia thus:

Aion (Greek: Αἰών) is a Hellenistic deity associated with time, the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the zodiac. The “time” represented by Aion is unbounded, in contrast to Chronos as empirical time divided into past, present, and future. He is thus a god of the ages, associated with mystery religions concerned with the afterlife, such as the mysteries of Cybele, Dionysus, Orpheus, and Mithras. In Latin the concept of the deity may appear as Aevum or Saeculum.

Of course, both αἰών and saeculum may represent the world or cosmos as well as eternity, as in the familiar translation of “in saecula saeculorum” as “world without end.” (The biblical phrase “the end of the world” also uses αἰών in the original, and modern translations often prefer “the end of the age”; even the English world is etymologically wer-old, “age of man.”) French Bibles translate αἰών sometimes as siècle (“world without end” is “aux siècles des siècles“) and sometimes as monde (as in “la fin du monde“). A nude figure, with a name that could be translated as “World,” standing in the center of the zodiac — this obviously bears some relation to our Tarot card.

The connection between God or Christ on his throne and a figure called Aion calls to mind the Ancient of Days described in Daniel 7 — a vision which, like Ezekiel’s, is much alluded to in John’s throne scene. The Ancient of Days is typically identified with God the Father, but he is identified as the Son in Eastern Orthodoxy and as Adam in Mormonism. Though it must surely be a “coincidence,” the Roman mosaic of Aion — featuring a naked man and woman, two trees, and a serpent — is also suggestive of Adam and Eve. Adam/Eve as “the World” suggests the Kabbalistic concept of Adam Kadmon.

Besides Aion, another possibly relevant Graeco-Roman deity is the Orphic god Phanes.

phanes.png

Phanes surrounded by the zodiac, a drawing, from A. B. Cook’s Zeus, of a 2nd-century Roman marble relief

The above representation of Phanes has the same basic layout as the World card: a central figure in an ellipse, with figures in the four corners. The ellipse is the zodiac with its 12 signs (represented in the World card by the tetramorph), and the four faces in the corners presumably represent the four winds. The central figure, Phanes, is male, but is nude like the World figure, and the serpent wrapped around his body suggests the flowing scarf worn by the World figure. He holds a staff in his left hand and a keraunos or stylized thunderbolt in his right — recalling the wand and phial of the World. Beyond this, there is a confusing congeries of attributes: wings, horns, cloven hooves, flames, an egg, and the heads of a goat, lion, and ram. What it all means is anyone’s guess — Orphism is a sealed book — but some connection with the World card seems likely.

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The World is one of three Tarot de Marseille cards to feature a figure with crossed legs, the other two being the Emperor and the Hanged Man.

crossed legs

The Emperor, Hanged Man (reversed) and World cards from the Tarot de Marseille (Grimaud version)

The Emperor sits on a throne, and as we have seen, the World image is closely related to images of God and Christ on their thrones. The Hanged Man, like Aion in the Roman mosaic, is between two trees. All three figures approximate with their bodies the alchemical symbol for sulfur (a triangle above a cross: 🜍), which is the active, masculine, solar principle in alchemy.

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Overall, I would say this idea of activity is what most distinguishes the World card from its throne-based predecessors. To sit on a throne is to be at rest, and I have commented elsewhere on the “sea of glass” in John’s throne vision as a symbol of perfect stasis and the cessation of all change. The figure in the World is not seated on a throne but dancing. One is reminded of the last verse of the old Christmas carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” (The one speaking in the song is Christ.)

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

This alludes to Christ sitting down on his Father’s throne — but the purpose is “that man may come unto the general dance.” It is this final goal that is depicted on the World card.

As for the items in the dancer’s hands, the wand resembles that of the Magician — which, we have learned, is originally and most fundamentally a pen. Might not the phial, then, be a bottle of ink? God and Christ, seated on their thrones, hold books that have already been written — symbols of fate, of the unalterable. The Dancer of the World, representing redeemed Humanity, holds a pen and ink, ready to write her own destiny.

2 thoughts on “The Throne and the World

  1. “I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”

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    • CCL, in the post I discuss the possibility that the woman on the World card is the whore of Babylon and give my reasons for rejecting that interpretation. Simply quoting Revelation without comment doesn’t really add anything — especially since literally nothing in the passage you quote, except “I saw a woman,” fits what we see on the card. No expensive clothing, no gold and jewels, no cup, no seven-headed scarlet beast, and no helpfully labeled forehead. She’s not even sitting! The Tarot card you have in mind is Aleister Crowley’s travesty of Strength (renamed “Lust”), not any version of the World of which I am aware.

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