The Court Cards



The court cards had a very special place in the handpainted Italian Trionfi cards. Because the commissioners of the cards were part of the court. In later decks the court cards were udes to show differences between the decks, to point out particular characteristics. But how did it begin?

In the Mamluk deck there were three male figures. The highest one, the King, was called Malik. After the King there were two high officers, the highest was called Na'ib and the second one Na'in Thanï. As an example we show the court cards of Cups, in increasing order, so with the Malik at the right side..

I cannot read Arabic so I cannot explain the text on the cards, but it seems that in the box on the bottom of the card it's rank was mentionned.

the hand painted decks of 15th Century Italy

On the oldest card we know, the Visconti di Modrone (Cary Yale Visconti), the three male figures get another name, they are called in English Page (or Squire), Knight and King. We show here below the corresponding cards of the same suit of Cups.

From left to right the Page, the Knight and the King. The three character have exactly the same heraldic elements on their cloths. In this case the so called "piumai", a crown with two different branches passing through, branches that have been identified as an olive branch and a palm brach. The Piumai was the personal device of Filippo Maria Visconti. On the Tarot of Marseille it is used on the Ace of Swords.

But the Visconti di Modrone went further. Every male court character was doubled with a female character.  Here below we show the three female characters of the suit of Coins.

From left to right a servant, female equivalent of the Page, a Lady on a horse, female equivalent of the Knight and a Queen, female companion of the King. Again we see the same characteristics; every single character of the same suit (male or female) has identical heraldic elements on his/her clothes. In this case it is a dove against a wavy radiant sun and a banner under the dove mentioning "A bon droyt". This device was the personal device of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, first Duke of Mila and father of Filippo Maria Visconti. The wavy radiant sun appears also on the Coin symbols and the device "A bon droyt" on the clothes of the little girl giving the huge golden coin to the Queen.

What is clear from this representation of a court is that every suit can be considered as a army. The leaders of this army are symbolized by the court cards. The numbered cards are the soldiers. When playing a game of cards, these four armies are fighting against each other. When you have many cards of the same suit, your army is strong, but if you have several cards of every suit, the battle is difficult to coordinate. In that case you can only win if you have many court cards from several suits. In this case the different courts have to fight together in order to win a battle.

We have seen that the order of the suit symbols is Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons. The Visconti di Modrone exhibits on the court cards in chronological order the hyraldic elements of the different Visconti dynasties. Gian Galeazzo Visconti is honoured on the Coins, his son Filippo Maria Visconti on the Cups, the daughter of Filippo, Bianca Maria Visconti on the Swords (all of the figures have flowering blossoms on their cloths) and the future spouse of Bianca, Francesco Sforza on the suit of Batons (his symbol is the fountain of life).

The Visconti di Modrone is the only deck we know having three male and three female court members on every suit. On all later decks we know, the servant and the lady on the horse disappear, so we have a court that consists of the King, the Queen, a Knight and a Page. On the hand painted decks the other characteristics stay the same; all members of the same court are clothed in a identical way. Heraldic elements were not always used on all court cards, but on decks made at a special occasion of a wedding (like the Visconti di Modrone deck in 1441 for the wedding between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti and the Este deck in 1473 for the wedding between Ercole I of Este and Eleanora d'Aragona, daughter of the Ferdinand I, King of Naples), heraldic elements of both families appears on most of the court cards.

The printed decks of the 16th and 17th Century

On the later printed decks, it was not necessary anymore to honour certain noble families; the court cards were used in another way to exhibit certain caracteristics of the suits symbols. Because a picture explains better than a thousand words, let me show you some examples, four different courts from four different decks. Let us start with the court cards of the suit of Coins illustrated on the so called Budapest sheets, dated to the early sixteenth Century.

From left to right the Page, the Knight, the Queen and the King. A page is a male or female servant at the court, here we see a female servant. We will come back to this female page when dealing with the Pages. The basic characteristics are the same as on the Visconti decks, the King and Queen are crowned and sitting on some sort of throne, the Knight is sitting on a horse and the Page is standing.

The next example consist of the court cards of the suit of Swords of the Rosenwald sheet dating as the previous example from the very early sixteenth Century, The court figures have the same general characteristics as on the previous example. What is different here is that the Knight is not a person riding a horse, but some sort of Centaur. We come back to this on the page dealing with the Knights.

The third example dates from the mid seventeenth Century and is taken from the French Tarot deck made by Jaques Vievil. We see here that on the same deck the suit symbol is illustrated in several different ways, reinforcing the special place that the suit of Batons has in the Tarot.

As a last example the court cards of the suit of Swordfs derived from a Tarocchini deck made by Giuseppe Mitelli somewhere between 1660 and 1670. On this deck the Queens are not sitting but standing, however, she can easily be distinguished thanks to her crown. The Knight is in a rather strange position, with his back facing to us. More about this feature on the page dealing with the Knights.

What do we learn from thse examples.  Except for the Visconti di Modrone, that is an ancestor of the Tarot, all Tarot decks have four court cards,

(1) a page or a servant at the court, sometimes female, most of the times male,  most of the times standing

(2) a knight sitting on a horse

(3) a crowned Queen, usually sitting on a throne

(4) a crowned King, also usually sitting on a throne

The difference between the four court members is easy to make when comparing cloths and posture. The figures are in the beginning never named nor numbered. Writing a name on the court cards  can be seen for the first time on the early seventeenth Century French Tarot of Paris. And even if the name is written there is no indication for the order,  everyone was supposed  to know the hierarchical position of the four court members.

When court cards are appearing in a Tarot spread, most of them indicate persons in the real world. Their rank and their symbol gives information about who it can be. A Page maybe indicates a young person, not having responsability yet, the Queen can indicate a mother figure and the King a father figure,. The person might be selfish (Coins), emotional (Cups), scientifally educated (Swords) or a born leader (Batons). These are just some possible basic associations, many others may be applied, all depends on your intuition.   The Knight has a slightly different place. Being a traveller, a messenger, the Knight indicates typically a message, some news.  This message can consider yourself (Knight of Coins), your family and friends (Knight of Cups), some other group of people (Knight of Swords) or everyone (Knight of Batons). A supplementary card is necessary to get an idea about the contents of the message.

Like all suit cards, every court card can be associated with an element and one of the inner planets. The Queen represents the female aspects, the goddess Venus and is associated  with the Cups. The King represents the male characteristics, the god Mars and is associated with the Batons. The Knight is a messenger, he is linked to the god Mercury and the suit of Swords. The Page finaly is the child of Gaia, Mother Earth, and its association is with the Coins.

As an example, the Queen of Swords can stand for the emotional aspects within the process of justice, she softens a judgement and takes certain environmental aspects into account that are excluded by pure logical reasoning. Instead of judging an unknown person based stricly on proven facts, the Queen of Swords tries to enter into his personality and takes into account his environment and what has happened to him before he commited a crime.

Comment Box is loading comments...