The Art of Tarot

While unpacking our suitcases after winter break, a pack of Jane Austen tarot cards fell out of my flatmate’s bag. As an avid Austen fan, I was understandably delighted. The deck relates all of her novel’s themes and characters to the themes behind each card. Elizabeth Bennet is the High Priestess with her mysterious bright eyes, while Mr Woodhouse is the Hermit with his anxious homebody tendencies. What did this all mean? I had always assumed tarot cards were a fairground game, or something someone who was on WitchTok would own. I had no idea they could contain images from my favorite novels or other media. While Austen’s works are magical to their readers, they certainly do not contain anything  of the “black arts”. This got my sleuth-senses tingling: what inspired the art that appears on tarot cards? Why does the mind immediately jump to medieval-esque gilding or Art Nouveau? Well, dear reader, after an intense Google-search and a glance in my crystal ball, I have obtained the answers you seek.

With the recent resurgence in popularity of tarot cards and the occult, so too are emerging new styles of art being depicted on these mystical cards. The earliest known examples of tarot cards comes from the 15th century in Europe. Italian, French, and British courts used tarot decks for card games, some of which, such as French Tarot or Tarocchini, are still played today. The deck then contained four suits, which differed by region, as well as face cards, and varied in number. Today, most decks operate with 78 cards made up of the 56-card Minor Arcana which has the four regular face cards and the suits: wands, swords, coins, and cups, and the 22-card Major Arcana which is made up of extra trump cards. Arcana is Latin for “secrets”, which really adds to the mystical vibes. One modern theory states that the Major Arcana tells a story, sometimes known as The Fool’s Journey, that begins with the unnumbered card, the Fool, and finishes with the end of the World. There are so many myths and rules to the art of tarot card reading that I won’t try to list them completely, but there are countless resources out there for those interested in learning more about the craft. I encourage you to peruse them at your leisure. 

In the early days of tarot, the occult did not figure much at all, and in fact the divination and cartomantic aspects associated with it today were mostly ascribed to the cards in Victorian times, when a fascination with the occult was growing. Before then, the cards were full of Christian themes and imagery. The art now typically associated with tarot cards was established in the British Rider-Waite-Smith deck released in 1910. This deck strayed from typical tarot design by removing Christian symbols almost entirely. The Sun card, which before was full of Christ-like connotations, was changed to a general symbol of health and abundance. The Pope, became the Hierophant, and the Papess was renamed the High Priestess. These changes—as well as tarot’s newfound union with the black arts—stuck, and have been the recognised titles of these cards in most decks ever since. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck was drawn and designed by Pamela Coleman Smith, a biracial woman who studied art at the Pratt Institute. She therefore studied the artistic styles of Art Nouveau and Symbolism, which she deployed artfully in the deck. The images she created established the artistic style we all associate with tarot cards today, but, because of her race and status, her name was erased for decades. Smith was also an influential feminist artist, and those ideas of female empowerment and gender equality have been a throughline in tarot deck designs since her designs first came out. 

Like most artforms, the art on tarot cards have followed the trends of the artistic movements in which they were designed. For example, The Charles VI, sometimes known as the Gringonneur, Deck from the 15th century greatly resembles manuscripts from that period, with intense gilding and structural framing of the figures on the cards. One can find a set of the Major Arcana from the 1970s by Osvaldo Menegazzi done in a Surrealist style evoking Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. By the end of the 20th century, artists were playing with Smith’s traditional tarot designs, after Art Nouveau, to reflect the changing attitudes towards race and sexuality. Today, you can find almost any concept for a tarot deck that your heart could desire. I have seen the Harry Potter characters reimagined, with Azkaban as the Tower card, and, predictably, Voldemort as the Devil. Etsy is a great place to look for these custom decks, even if you plan on following the popular tarot rule wherein you can only use a deck that’s been gifted to you, there are many beautiful and interesting designs on view.