The Renaissance Tarot Wheel



As we have seen on the previous page, the oldest written source of the order of the Trumps we have is the so called Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis, also known as the Steele Sermon. We adopt this order as the original order for the 22 trump cards.  Let us recall this order:

1.The Conjurer (Magician, Street Performer)

2.The Empress

3.The Emperor

4.The Popess 

5.The Pope   


7.Love (The Lovers)

8.The Chariot of Triumph


10.The Wheel  of Fortune

11.The Hunchback (The Old Man, Time, The Hermit)

12.The Hanged Man


14.The Devil

15.The Arrow (The Tower)

16.The Star

17.The Moon

18.The Sun

19.The Angel (The Final Judgement)


21.The World (or God the Father)

The Fool was considered zero according the Sermones. So let us consider him 0. If we remove the Virtues and the World, we have exactly the nine pairs ordered in the way I described them on earlier pages. Temperance is mentioned after the third pair, Strength after the fourth pair and Justice after the Last pair. Why is Strength not mentioned after the sixth pair? The reason is simple; with (moral) Strength you can trump over your desire for sex (love) or over your lust of Power (the Chariot). But you can never trump over your destiny, time, accidents or death. You can accept them as inevitable, but you cannot trump them. So, to easily remember the order in the game, Strength has been placed after the Chariot, but before Destiny (the Wheel)

In order to explain the structure behind the Tarot trumps, let is go back to the three levels we have developped before, The Estates of the Realm, the Hardship of Life and the Ascent to Light. I will use as much as possible the cards made for the Este family, because in my opinion it is in Ferrara that the structure originated.

The estates of the Realm

The first level represents what Plato called the Soul of Appetite and is associated with  human Society, with the three Estates of the Realm. Within this level level, we find the three levels describing the structure of human Society:

  • The first Estate of the Realm is composed of ordinary people. The lowest of all, a Fool, is representing all people without work and the Conjurer is representing all the ordinary people who are working to nourish their family.
  • The second level is dedicated to Nobility with the Empress representing Family and the Emperor the Holy Roman Empire.
  • The third level is for the Clergy, with the Popess representing Faith in God (religion if you want) and the Pope the Roman Catholic Church (the Church as an institute).

Plato stated in his book "The Republic", that in order to raise above the Soul of Appetite you have to be modest, you have to practice Temperance. For this reason this Virtue is placed on top of the Three Estates of the Realm.

The first two cards are from the Tarot of Ercole I of Este, the Empress is from the Visconti di Mordrone, the Popess from the Visconti Sforza and the three remaining cards from the Estensi (Charles VI) Tarot. Nor the Empress, not the Popess are surviving in one of the hand-painted decks from the Este family. They have however survived in earliest  printed decks originating from Ferrara.

The hardship of Life

The second level is dedicated to what Plato called the Soul of Will. It describes the hardness of life, all the difficulties that you will have to overcome, especially the three blind powers. Within this level again three sublevels that gives advices to the aristocratic child. The lowest pair gives advice how you should behave. On the first card we meet Love, the first blind power. The card indicates that you have to control your sexual desire. On the second card a victory chariot indicating that you have to control your lust of power and be moderate in every aspect of life. The next pair is dedicated to time. The first card shows Fortune, the second blind power.  The Wheel of Fortune is turning to indicate that good and bad luck are beyond your own power and that nothing lasts forever. This is further reinforced in the second card where you see Father Time holding his hour glass. Time cannot be stopped, so don't waste the time that is left for you. On the first card of the  third pair we see a person hanged upside down. This card represents something happening that is irreversibly changing your life. Maybe the inquisition condemned you, you lost your wife, you lost the light in your eyes, something happened that cannot be changed.  On the last card Death itself, the last and most powerful of the three blind powers, to indicate that you have to prepare yourself for the transition to Afterlife.

In order to raise above the Soul of Will, you need courage, you need to be strong, so you have to practice the Virtue Strength. The Este family placed the Virtue Strength directly behind the Chariot, because self control over your desire and your lust of power is something that you have in your own hand. Luck, time, illnesses and death are factors in life that cannot be influenced.

The Wheel of Fortune is a card from the Visconti Brambilla, all other cards are from the Estensi (Charles VI) Tarot.

The Ascent to Light

The third level is according Plato dedicated to the Soul of Reason. It describes the journey of the Soul through Afterlife and it is based on the Divine Comedy of Dante. Again internally three levels, on the first level the Journey of the Soul through Hell, on the second level the Journey of the Soul through the Purgatory and on the last level the Journey of the Soul through the nine spheres of Heaven. The first two levels are represented by one card each. The Devil represents Hell and the Soul becoming conscious of his bad acts in human life. Lightning destroying a castle represents the Purgatory and is associated with Gods anger and with the penitence we have to do for our bad acts. The Journey of the Soul through the nine spheres of Heaven is represented by four cards with increasing brightness of light. First the Star, representing Gods love, then the Moon, representing the knowledge of our inner self, followed by the Sun, representing wisdom and at last the Angels representing the reincarnation and eventually Eternal Life in Heaven.

In order to raise above the Soul of will, according to neoplatonic views you have to be just, you need to practice the Virtue of Justice. So this Virtue should be placed above all other cards.

The Devil shown here is made by a modern artist, A. Atanassov, created in order of Lo Scarabeo for one of its version of the Visconti Sforza deck. As inspiration for this image the artist used the Devil from the Rothschild sheet as a model. The Star, Moon and Sun are from the Ercole I of Este Tarot and the three remaining cards are from the Estensi (Charles VI) Tarot.

The Tarot Wheel, a description of the human life cycle

The eighteen cards forming the three levels of the Soul describe the human life cycle. It starts with the Fool, who has the innocence and the mind of a newborn baby, to finish with reincarnation after the Resurrection by the Angels (the Fool again). The three levels describe our society, the journey of the Soul through human life with his battle against the blind powers, and finally the ascent of the Soul to God in Afterlife as described by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Because human life is a cycle the cards can be laid out in a circle. The three Virtues who according Plato purify the three levels of the Soul, are placed inside this circle, above their respective level, like spokes of a wheel. In the axis of the wheel thrones Prudence, the highest cardinal Virtue associated in the Renaissance with wisdom. In this representation she is situated above the three other Virtues. The whole image resembling a wheel, we call it the Tarot Wheel.

To conclude we can see that  the Tarot is devided in three levels. On the lowest level the cycle of the Human Soul from birth to reincarnation, on the second level the moral values that guide our behaviour and on the highest level God himself. On the lowest level, the Human life cycle the cards have a very distinct order. For game purposes only the virtues are placed somewhere in this order, with big regional differences. The card representing God (the World) is almost allways the highest trump. On the next page we will see en exception.

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