The World card of the Tarot of Marseille presents a seemingly heterogeneous composition. Inside an oval-shaped garland of leaves stands a person, almost naked, save for a kind of scarf that hides his genitals, holding a wand or scepter in his left hand. Outside the garland, at the four corners of the card, stand four figures: at the top, an angel and a bird, and at the bottom, a bovine and a lion. Although the composition of this card is akin to a well-known figure of the Christian iconographic tradition, the Tetramorph, some important details do not seem to fit such a comparison.

Nicolas Conver, The World, 1760.

At first sight, the Tarot of Marseille’s World card seems directly inspired by Christian iconography. We can identify in it the main characteristics of an image, rather frequently found in Western art during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, known as the Tetramorph. The royal portal of the Chartres Cathedral in France provides a typical example of one.

Tetramorph of the royal portal of the Chartres Cathedral.

The cathedral Tetramorph presents elements from various origins. At the center is the figure of Christ in glory, inscribed within the oval of a mandorla. Four figures are positioned around this oval: an angel and eagle on top and an ox and lion on the bottom. These four figures are derived from several texts of the Old and New Testaments. In John’s Revelation, they surround the heavenly throne:

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night, they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” [1]

As Gérard de Champeaux and Dom Sébastien Sterckx have shown, the four living creatures celebrate the sovereign power of God over Creation.[2] These authors observe that Irenaeus (who died in AD 202) laid the foundation for the Christian interpretation of the Tetramorph.[3]  Since then, the “mysterious apparition emerging in the sky surrounded by the four living creatures” will be viewed as the “universal manifestation of God to attentive humans,” “figure of the announcement of Christ to the world by the four gospels,” the number four referencing the four regions  of the world, and the four winds of the four cardinal points. Irenaeus associated  each Gospel to one of the living creatures, and these pairings lived throughout the centuries with slight modifications. Today, the eagle is generally associated with John, the lion to Mark, the ox to Luke, and the angel-man to Matthew.

Thus, the Tetramorph manifests the idea of a multiple world created and held together by a single divine spirit. The world emanates from Christ, creator of the universe, source of Creation, surrounded by the four living creatures turned toward the four cardinal points.[4] Moreover, Champeaux and Sterck highlighted the astrological resonance of the Tetramorph, already present in Ezekiel’s visions, from which originate the four living creatures. Indeed, the four figures of the lion, the ox, the eagle and the man appear in this prophetical text, where they stand for four constellations marking the four seasons in the zodiacal belt, which rotates in the nocturnal sky as a gigantic carousel.[5]

Thus, since the times of early Christianity, the four living creatures represent four constellations of the zodiac, viewed as celestial time markers: Bull (Taurus), Lion (Leo), Eagle (Scorpio), and Man (Aquarius). In Christian iconography, the center of the figure was the place of incarnated divinity, represented in different ways: the Cross, the Lamb, Christ. Thus, the image  illustrates the idea that God acts through incarnation within the world, and that this world is inscribed in time.

The World card in the Tarot of Marseille obviously is inspired by this iconographic tradition. However, the figure in the center, amid the four living creatures, clearly differs from the traditional representations of the Tetramorph. Standing on one leg, the character is holding a wand or scepter in his left hand and is dressed only with a kind of scarf that floats in the wind.

The genitalia are hidden behind the scarf. On the chest, round shapes marked with dots evoke women’s breasts. Other feminine characteristics include the wide hips and slim waist. So, what is the character’s gender? If he or she is not Christ, then who is this?

To be continued in part two.

[1] Revelation, 4 6-8.

[2] Gérard de Champeaux, Dom Sébastien Sterckx, Introduction au monde des symboles, La Pierre-qui-Vire, Zodiaque, 1989, p. 430.

[3] Iraeneus, Adversus Haereses, III, 11, 8.

[4] Gérard de Champeaux, Dom Sébastien Sterckx, Introduction au monde des symboles, cit., p. 430.

[5] Gérard de Champeaux, Dom Sébastien Sterckx, Introduction au monde des symboles, cit., pp. 430-434. Cf. Ezekiel, 1 1.

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