Art and Artifice

Whatever can be Created can be Annihilated: Forms cannot.

The Oak is cut down by the Ax; the Lamb falls by the Knife,

But their Forms Eternal exist.  For-ever.  Amen.  Hallelujah!

– William Blake “Milton, a poem”

CBD Ace of Swords: recreation of the 1760 Nicolas Conver TdM

The Ace of Swords in the Tarot de Marseille is vibrant and robust; no counterpart from any deck I have yet seen matches its dynamism.  Unfortunately, TdM commentaries do not crackle with the same energy.  The symbolism is fathomless, yet published commentaries seldom dip below the surface.  I am thinking mostly of Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Way of the Tarot, and Yoav Ben-Dov, The Open Reading, for these two seem the best of the few that actually write about the cards of the minor arcana; yet even they make only a few pointed remarks, then move on, as though they fear that if they plunge too deeply into these waters, they might never reemerge.  I owe a tremendous debt to both men, for they started me out on my journey; however, I must admit to feeling a keen disappointment in their work in this particular area.  I do not believe that such an image can be quickly and easily stated in a few words, nor do I believe phrases, such as, “sharp thinking, a clear definition of goals” (Ben-Dov) and “the intellect, forged energy, grows thinner as it nears the unity of Cosmic Consciousness” (Jodorowsky) are of much help.  The problem is (and always will be) that when we summarize such a vital and expansive image, such as we find in this card, we fall into the trap of thinking that we understand it.  The truth is this illustration defies all attempts to box it up, label it, and store it on a shelf somewhere for effortless future reference.  We cannot understand it, so we must reconcile ourselves to that inescapable limitation, and rather than committing to a hopelessly futile attempt to contain it in language alone, we should focus our efforts instead upon exploring the symbolism of each element of the image.

Pierre Madenié (1709); Francois Héri (1718); Arnoux & Amphoux (1801) –

restitution decks by Yves Renaud

The Red Sword

The blade of the sword in the Conver-Ben-Dov (CBD), from which the initial card of the post comes, is red, as it is in the majority of Tarot de Marseille decks, the two most notable exceptions being the Jean Noblet (1650s) and Ignaz Krebbs (c. 1700s), in which the blade is light blue, which I interpret as steel gray.  It is also gray in the Jacques Vieville (1650), which is not really a TdM but is closely-related.  In 1930, Paul Marteau fabricated his own deck (now marketed by Grimaud under the misnomer Ancien Tarot de Marseille) in which he changed the blade to a deep blue, and a couple other modern interpretations have followed suit.[i]  I do not favor this innovation, as I believe it comes more from a rational position than one of inspiration, but I will address that at the end of this section.

Red is an emotionally intense color; the expression “to see red” refers to an uncontrollable rage, but there is some belief (though by no means a consensus in the scientific community) that when we actually see red, we experience measurable physiological effects, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, more rapid breathing, and it may even make us more aggressive, much like bulls charging at the red matador’s cape.  In actual fact, bulls cannot distinguish the color red; they are incited by the movement of the cape and react the same way regardless of the color, so the bright red is really for our benefit, arousing the spectators to their blood-lust.  Red is a bilateral color insofar as it evokes both negative and positive associations: it is the color of blood; thus, we associate it with violence, danger, stress, wrath, revenge, and murder (to be caught “red-handed” means to be caught with the victim’s blood literally still on your hands).  In Isaiah (1:18), red is the color of sin: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”  Red is warning, and it is the color of the devil, as befits his station as lord over the fiery pits of hell. 

However red is also sacrifice and courage, vigor, love, passion, sex; it is the life force that courses through our veins and arteries.  In alchemy, the magnum opus begins with the mortificatio, the killing of that which is outmoded and corrupt, and the putrefactio, the putrefying of the corpse; their color is black, the nigredo.  What follows is the purification of the putrefied body by fire, when it turns white, the albedo.  From this pure state of whiteness comes the reddening, the rubedo.  In an interview Carl Jung gave in 1952, he said:

… in this state of “whiteness” one does not live in the true sense of the word, it is a sort of abstract, ideal state.  In order to make it come alive it must have “blood,” it must have what the alchemists call the rubedo, the “redness” of life.  Only the total experience of being can transform this ideal state of the albedo into a fully human mode of existence.  Blood alone can reanimate a glorious state of consciousness in which the last trace of blackness is dissolved, in which the devil no longer has an autonomous existence but rejoins the profound unity of the psyche.  Then the opus magnum is finished: the human soul is completely integrated.

Thus the rubedo is the final stage and signifies success.  The red stone is said to be able to transform base metals into gold, the earthly man into a philosopher.  And we can also say that the thinking associated with this image is not a sort of “abstract, ideal,” and detached thinking (albedo), but is vital and impassioned.

Paul Marteau’s Ace of Swords (from Grimaud’s Ancien Tarot de Marseille

Though Marteau does not explicitly state why he altered the color of the sword blade, he does write, “The mighty blue sword, held upright and with its point lost in the crown, signifies the spiritual, evolutionary impetus of Man towards that The Above, expressing also that which is best in it” (this and all Marteau quotes translated by Kitos Digiovanni, https://smallcabin.org).  Though colors themselves do not have opposites, so to speak (they have complements), blue and red are, nevertheless, striking contrasts to one another and occupy opposite ends of the visible color spectrum.  What is more, they do oppose one another symbolically or psychologically: while red is aggressive, passionate, sexual – the color of the devil and his fiery abode – and immediate, blue is calming, containing great depths; it is the color of water, which extinguishes flame, and heaven, from where Satan was cast out; we associate blue with faith, spirituality, and the patient intellectuality which opposes the intense emotional inferno of red.  In Conver, the red tip of the blade appears above the crown; in Marteau’s deck, a “red flower surmount[s] the sword’s point,” intimating action to accompany the words/thought of the blue blade.  Later in the commentary, Marteau makes the distinction even clearer when he writes, “The red cuff, bordered with blue, indicates that the union of the two planes – the psychic and the material – is necessary for action,” and “The flowers of the crown, three red and two blue, specify that its domain is both the spiritual and material planes with, however, more power in the later, as that is where efforts must be exercised.”  Thus, we can surmise that Marteau believed that a red sword blade would have placed too much emphasis on the volatile emotions connected with the material world (and the actions required to bring it to submission) while neglecting the spiritual and aspirational aspects which ought to be the ideal of the suit. 

Marteau’s scholarship is impressive, yet I do not trust his TdM (which one blogger has dubbed, appropriately in my opinion, Tarot de Marteau).  In The Way of the Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky suggests that his modifications were at least partially motivated by money, writing, “Marteau also permitted himself to alter certain details, as this made it possible for him to commercialize the deck and receive royalties from it as the author.”  I do not know whether this is a fair criticism or not; if Jodorowsky is correct, it is an unworthy basis upon which to make those changes.  My own misgivings are much more indefinite and difficult to put into words: as I read the commentaries available to me from Digiovanni as well as references from other books, I suspect that Marteau’s revisions are far more the product of an intellectual aesthetic than the effluence of genuine inspiration.

We see this in many of the contrived modern decks: our upper-consciousness minds seek to control every aspect of our artistry by substituting rational systematization for creativity.  For instance, XIIII Temperance: in every historical TdM, the angel is pouring liquid from one golden urn into another golden urn; in many, the two urns are identical, while in others, there are minor differences.  However, Marteau decided to have one urn blue and the other red, writing, “The two vases symbolize the perpetual renewal which establishes balance between the material and the spiritual; the one eternally passing into the other without ever filling it, the material forever renewing itself.  The colorless water, which is to say, neutral, represents the fluid uniting the two poles and thereby neutralizing them; leaving the same blue vase and returning, following the principle of the flux and reflux of forces.”  This is a calculated theme that runs throughout his deck and book.  “[Her] robe is half red, half blue, because equilibrium must be maintained…”  This is a statement that comes straight out of systematical and statistical thinking, which finds balance solely in numerical correspondence.  It makes the image much easier to conceptualize, to summarize, and file.  It is the same kind of thinking we find in decks such as John Opsopaus’ Pythagorean Tarot in which the Temperance angel pours water from a golden urn into a silver dish, introducing solar and lunar, male and female elements into his formulaic concordance.

Temperance: Arnoux & Amphoux (1801); Paul Marteau (1930); Pythagorean Tarot (2001)

Marteau, like so many authors of modern decks, attempts to devise symbols corresponding to his intellectual ideals, but symbols cannot be manufactured or fully apprehended by the conscious mind; they are beacons leading us ever onward into areas of the unknown and unknowable.  He changes the blade to blue with the specific intention that we understand it to represent spiritual rather than material aspiration.  At that point, the art becomes artifice.

Naturally, someone might make the same objection to the red blade: perhaps the individual who initially developed what became the Tarot de Marseille imagery did so with specific intentions, and he very well might have.  However, the TdM imagery, over the course of centuries, evolved into a collective form.  As each card maker contributed his mite (and we can be certain there were many decks lost over time), the intentions of the originator of the imagery became less relevant.  We might liken this process to a stone that is handled by a multitude of people over the course of centuries: as time passes, the rough (individualistic) features are worn away until what is left is smooth and collective.  This is precisely what cannot occur when a single individual is the architect of a unique tarot: he makes all the decisions, determines the meanings, and the end product mirrors his psyche, his wisdom, his understanding, and his neuroses.  


[i]      This includes the Universal Tarot of Marseille, created by Lee Bursten and issued in 2006 by Lo Scarabeo.  This deck purports to be a restoration of the 1751 Claude Burdel TdM; however, Burdel’s Ace of Swords featured a red, not a blue, blade.  This is merely one of many significant alterations we find in the UTdM, making it far more a modern fabrication than a faithful restoration of an historic deck.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.