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Minchiate Tarot

  • designer/artist/author: Brian Williams
  • publisher:Inner Traditions
  • first appeared: 1999

As far as scholars can determine, tarot cards first appeared in northern Italy in the heyday of the Renaissance. Almost every city had their own distinctive version of the tarot. One variation spread to France to become the Tarot de Marseille, the classic tarot that inspired virtually all our present-day decks, occult theories, and divination practices. The other fascinating tarot variants, which persisted in their native Italy for centuries, somehow escaped the attention of everyone except art historians and collectors of playing cards. Until now.

To create this extraordinary new tarot set, artist Brian Williams drew his inspiration from what is certainly the most metaphysically elaborate variation to be found in the entire history of the tarot: the Minchiate of Florence. The 16th-century Florentines expanded the system of trumps to include all 12 signs of the zodiac, and the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire; they augmented the three virtues of the tarot (Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance) with Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Charity, for a total of seven. Perhaps in deference to the influence of Rome, the Papess (High Priestess) was removed from the deck, and the Pope was replaced by the Eastern Emperor. The result was a tarot deck with 97 cards, including the Fool and 40 numbered trumps, instead of the usual 21. But such a description only touches the tip of the iceberg. Even the cards carried over from the standard tarot were often redesigned; the knights, for example, were transformed into centaurs and griffons. A number of the pip cards sport curious little animal vignettes, apparently based on fables and folktales. I own a reproduction of a fancy engraved Florentine Minchiate deck, and I use it extensively for divination and contemplation. It is a rich and powerful system of symbols, full of possibilities and nuances.

Williams, who created the innovative and beautiful Renaissance Tarot, as well as the irony-drenched and critically exalted PoMo Tarot, has taken the ancient Minchiate designs and re-visioned them for our own time with incomparable grace and delicacy. This is the artist's finest work to date, showing a master's fluidity with both concept and execution. The pristine and elegant line drawings evoke feelings of balance and inner peace rarely found in western art, and the coloring is both subtle and eloquent. Even the pip cards are made into suitable objects for spiritual contemplation. It is impossible to hurry in working with these cards. Each image calms and directs the mind, and the resulting state of focus draws one into the rich and layered meanings of the symbols. In the Tower card (sometimes called The Devil's House in the Minchiate), for example, we witness a woman poised on the cusp of inner turmoil. Behind her, a demonic hand reaches out from a flaming doorway. But the hand doesn't grasp her; she is neither being pushed out or pulled in to the inferno. Instead, she hesitates, glancing over her shoulder with a look of perplexity, longing, and anguish. Her body is in motion but her mind is trapped in an invisible web of contrary impulses.

Compelling images abound in this deck. I know astrology less than I do tarot, but I've never felt like I "understood" Taurus. Bulls seem like symbols of aggression and male potency to me; I couldn't find the nurturing aspect and never saw an illustration or explanation that helped much. The Taurus card in this Minchiate deck, though, says it all perfectly in a single wordless image. There are also some very subtle impressions I'd been making use of in reading my old Minchiate deck, such as a significant difference in poise and attitude between the Western Emperor and the Eastern Emperor. Williams has preserved many of these nuances, although often expressing them through a different set of details. Then there are the strangely evocative images of the four elements. Earth is a serene landscape with a deer who is not yet quite aware of our presence; Fire is a sacrificial goat in a bonfire, Water shows a great explorer's galleon at sea, passing an enormous whale on its journey to some distant port; and Air shows a dog looking up wistfully at the birds and clouds drifting high above.

One of the things I have long admired about Williams's Renaissance Tarot is the way in which the human figures are handled with both love and respect. We may not, at first acquaintance, be ready to say that we understand what is on the mind of the Queen of Swords, Temperance, or the Devil, but we are confident that the artist has found their humanity, and is inviting us to do the same. There is a promise that there really is a subtle harmony underpinning all the strange twists and turns of human personality. In the New Minchiate Tarot, this compassionate and deeply spiritual vision of the human condition is distilled and perfected. The sense of intimacy with the figures on the cards is stronger than it is in the Renaissance Tarot, but somehow that heightened intimacy is achieved without compromising their humanistic dignity.

Although the new Minchiate is an adaptation of a historic deck, the personal vision of the artist has made it much more than a collector's curiosity. I think modern tarot readers will find this an excellent deck for personal healing, for relationship work, and for tapping into those feelings of oceanic belonging that those of us with mystical inclinations pursue with such devotion. A deck is an important and powerful personal item; readers may come to resemble their decks. A deck like this, with a strong spiritual center and the capacity to affirm human dignity and harmonize the personality, is not something to be found every day.

This is not a deck for those who want a host of different "symbols" on each card to interpret. You won't find secret messages hidden in the designs of the clothing or the placement of the blades of grass. The artwork is very light and spacious, completely unburdened. The meaning comes through one's esthetic impression of the whole, not through an intellectual analysis of the individual components. This is a deck of private reverie.

The accompanying book, like the Renaissance Tarot book, is a treasure trove of research, insight, and gleanings from Italian art history. Williams has again produced an extensive collection of line drawings made from classic art that is not generally available for our study and enjoyment. Although it is an essential guide to interpreting the cards, it is also, like its predecessor, an excursion into the fascinating world of Italian art and culture. It would be wonderful if more tarot "companion books" had something this substantial to give us.

The Minchiate Tarot is a milestone. For many decades, tarot use and interpretation was constrained by occult theories based on qabala and the Tarot de Marseille. More recently, readers are stepping outside of that framework to experience the tarot from feminist, pagan, eastern, or shamanistic perspectives. Along with this has come a more intuitive, more personal way of seeking meaning in the cards. Yet, for the most part, the decks themselves have made only superficial concessions to these expanding horizons. The New Minchiate Tarot reaches back to a time when tarot was more diverse, and designers made dramatic experiments in the symbolic system. The Minchiate was waiting to be heard; thanks to the artistic talents of Brian Williams, it now sings to us with clarity and profundity across the span of centuries.

Copyright © 1999-2008 Tom Waters